A lot of critics have assumed the warmth of Conor Oberst’s Nonesuch debut stems from some kind of “Seventies California folk pop” just because he worked out the early stage of these 13 new songs with Jonathan Wilson at the revered West Coast producer/musician’s studio in L.A.’s Echo Park district.
But lifers from the Northeast who dig into the rustic vibrations of Upside Down Mountain will quickly recognize the markings of New Paltz, New York, where his longtime manager Nathan Krenkel moved Team Love, the label he and Oberst founded in 2003 out of Krenkel’s Lower East Side apartment.
Especially once you hear the primary strains of opening track “Time Forgot”, which will give you a keener idea of where the artist otherwise known as Bright Eyes is more than likely speaking about
“Polished my shoes I brought a brand new hat moved to a town that time forgot/Where I don’t have to shave or be approachable, I can do just what I want”, he sings, evoking a new school hippie daydream as genuine as a stroll down historic Church Street, where Team Love now resides, whilst set to some of the warmest folk-rock he’s recorded since he began recording music as a pre-teen over 20 years ago.
The markings of Ulster County can be heard all across Upside Down Mountain. Even if only in spirit, as Oberst alongside a team of helping hands including Klara and Johanna Soderberg of First Aid Kit, acclaimed Alabama Shakes/Jenny Lewis guitarist-producer Blake Mills, longtime foil Mike Mogis of Cursive fame and loyal Bright Eyes/Mystic Valley Band alum Nate Walcott among others, do an outstanding job evoking the spirits of Basement Tapes-era Bob Dylan and The Band and even a bit of present-day Hudson Valley heroes the Felice Brothers, whose chief singer/guitarist Ian Felice’s painting is featured on the cover of this record, on highlight tracks like “Enola Gay”, “Kick” and “Governor’s Ball”.
To allow the sensationalism drummed up by the media about those fake rape charges levied against Oberst to overshadow the beauty of what could be the best album of his career would be a sin. Luckily, Upside Down Mountain plays above the cacophony of the indie tabloid chatter with a truth and purity that takes you back to a time when the Internet only existed for guys from that TV show Halt and Catch Fire.
-Ron Hart, Weekender Correspondent