This EP is a snapshot. Not a premeditated photograph a mother arranging her kids in descending-height order in front of a monument, or one of those Sears Portrait Studio shots, where everyone's in a tie and the marbleized backdrop communicates a kind of calculated boredom. It's more like you're at a bar, drinking heavily, and one of your friends whips out a camera and snaps a picture of you with your mouth half open and your eyes half closed. There is nothing planned, there are no expectations, there is a refreshing lack of inhibition.
Ben Dickey, proprietor of Post-Parlo records and idea-man behind "Home," his label's series of split EPs, is just such a surprise photographer. His EPs seem to catch artists unaware, as if they'd been recording by themselves, in smoky bedrooms, and he's crouched in the closet with a mini-disc recorder, microphone peeking out from under his shirt. He kicks it laissez-faire style, letting the musicians he's wrangled collaborate freely, without the distracting eye of a producer or label guy. He plans the meeting, cuts the rope, and steps back.
On this new outing (limited to 2,000 copies), the results are such that one wonders why nobody thought of putting Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Spoon's Britt Daniel together before. However, on paper, it might seem like an interesting but not so magnetic experiment: the wildly verbose Oberst spins full sentences, full paragraphs sometimes, into morose, desperate confessionals; Daniel has a gift of using words as percussion, and wringing impressive amounts of feeling from a few brief lines, embracing the brevity Oberst eschews. Bright Eyes' themes are generally depressing, even when upbeat and hopeful; Daniel seems like Loudon Wainwright's (and Johnny Cash's) "man who couldn't cry." Even in break-up testimonials like "Anything You Want" and "10:20 a.m." he remains aloof, resisting the break-downs into which Oberst plunges with masochistic abandon.
But the combination works: collaboration both subdues and highlights artistic differences. On the two songs for which Oberst and Daniel share songwriting credit, the Spoon gives the Bright Eyes an edge, and the Bright Eyes pumps the Spoon with strong melodic flourishes. "Spent on Rainy Days" features the standard Oberstian theme of love lost, and it's a vocal that would normally suggest one of Bright Eyes' somber, chamber-folk arrangements, but Daniel's lead guitar injects it with rocky, punchy passion. Conversely, Oberst's influence on the Daniel-sung "Let the Distance Keep Us Together" is noticeable rarely has Daniel's instrumentation, much less his singing, been so expressive and pretty.
Bright Eyes and Daniel each have one of their own songs, too. Daniel's, "You Get Yours," is a fun revenge tune which pits his vocals against Oberst's. The former's slurred attitudinal drawl and the latter's pained, freezing tremble complement each other better than those descriptions would lead you to believe. "Southern State" is a long-winded affair that doesn't kick in until the very end, when Daniel's bass guitar and Oberst's screeching create perfect high/low tension. The songs on this EP are pretty close to what you'd expect to get if Bright Eyes and Spoon collaborated, but the feeling is much more elusive. Laid-back creativity lets both Daniel and Oberst open themselves up to partnership.
The fact that Bright Eyes and Spoon released the best albums of their careers within weeks of each other makes this inspired pairing no less effective than if Post-Parlo had snagged them four years ago, when Conor Oberst was experiencing the adolescence of his songwriting career, and A Series of Sneaks-era Spoon was channeling the haughty kineticism of the Stones into the band's evolving, serpentine sound. Fact is, Oberst and Daniel have been worthy of the spotlight since the beginnings of their careers, and if this EP was released in 1997, 1998, or each year after, the result would sound quite different, but would be artistically worthwhile. Luckily, Post-Parlo caught them now, when they're each pumped with promise and primed to forge new ground. Here's to hoping Dickey will bring them back in five years for a reunion if he does, he result could be just as intriguing.