Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, 'Outer South' (Merge)

Critical Mass
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by Josh Modell

Conor Oberst's Dylan-inspired transformation from unsteady teenage folkie to classic rocker continues with his second Mystic Valley Band set, boasting a celebratory, straightforward snarl that might startle his younger self. And though Oberst gets top billing, he's unnecessarily democratic with the songwriting: His bandmates sing lead on nearly half the 16 songs, and when Oberst takes over, he outshines them handily. His "White Shoes" is as gently, starkly brilliant as his "Roosevelt Room" is raggedly glorious, while his pals' contributions range from solid ("Big Black Nothing") to silly ("Air Mattress"). Still, it mostly works: Shave a couple of the non-Conor tracks and it'd sit comfortably with his best.

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