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Bright Eyes | A Christmas Album (Saddle Creek)
Taken alongside Conor Obert's 'Lifted,' 'A Christmas Album' serves to underline the contrasting aspects that define Bright Eyes. 'Lifted' - an amazing album guaranteed to turn up on many a end-of-the-year list - was a bravely produced, intriguingly crafted affair that showcased Conor's unapologetically broad scope, while 'A Christmas Album' bears testament to the stripped-down, accidental, bedroom side that is also vital to the music of one of the most important singer/songwriters to emerge these last few years. Additionally, both albums offer solid proof that Bright Eyes is vitally reliant on the musicians that star alongside Conor - whoever they may be from time to time. Although Conor runs the show, his musician friends bring their own unique voices and approaches on board, and are given space and opportunity to breathe and to express themselves. 'A Christmas Album' - an album of traditional and standard seasonal hymns - make this point clearer than ever before, with Conor contributing no original material and often stepping back to let his friends take centre stage. 'A Christmas Album' has the character of a loose and informal jam, the sounds of a few friends casually running through some Christmas favourites. At the same time, this is done with all the idiosyncratic character and angular style that you've come to expect from the Omaha folk scene. Sure, a few of the tracks fail to engage much - The First Noel and Silver Bells are both too straightforward to make much of an impression. But elsewhere, Oberst and friends approach these songs in a stunningly expansive and invigorating style, adding a genuine sense of curiosity and rustic soul to the basic Salvation Army set-up. Little Drummer Boy comes in the shape of distorted glitches and a funereal gloom, while the version of Away In A Manger is tear-jerkingly moving. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen has the subdued frenzy that characterizes some of Bright Eyes' finest moments and you just knew that Conor would be perfect for Blue Christmas, didn't you? Obviously not the official follow-up to 'Lifted', it is still one of the few Christmas albums with any sense of purpose beyond commercial exploitation - it is made available from exclusively, and the proceeds benefit the Nebraska AIDS project. A great Christmas album and an admirable cause as well. A must-have, for all the right reasons.

Stein Haukland
December 2002