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November 19, 2005

Bright Eyes vs. The Bobs

Mountain Express (NC):

Two bands. Worlds apart. One night. Your call.

It's likely no one has ever called Richard Greene, the baby boomer bass in a cappella quartet The Bobs, an "indie love muffin." It's also likely that the Bobs' audience doesn't shower the group with stuffed animals, flowers or panties items hipster singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, refers to as "all the normal things." But, then again, Oberst has yet to perform a voice-only rendition of Cream's "White Room" using kazoo-like mouth effects in place of Eric Clapton's emotive guitar. But on Nov. 17, both acts Bright Eyes and the Bobs will go head-to-head to win local hearts.

The Bobs are both more hygienic and more forthcoming, though their schedule is somewhat less hectic. "We play 50 to 100 dates a year," Greene points out. "It allows you to have a life." Formed in 1981 (a year after Oberst's birth), the a cappella group was the brainchild of Gunnar Madsen and Matthew Stull, two unemployed Western Union singing-telegram deliverers. A free classified ad soliciting a bass singer turned up Greene.

"We started doing this for a lark," he reveals. "We started out doing open mics." Three years later, the group's first album was released, and that's when they realized their quirky barbershop-quartet style might amount to more than a hobby. It was that year they received a Grammy nomination for their arrangement of "Helter Skelter." This year, the group is touring in support of their new release, Rhapsody in Bob, based around Gershwin's classic "Rhapsody in Blue." Hint: On stage, a pianist plays the keyboard parts while the Bobs work out the rest of the instrumentation with their vocal "chords."

Although both acts have made some substantial career leaps, neither is playing into the hands of the music-industry machine. In fact, the Bobs are seriously not serious. "It wasn't forethought," Greene clarifies. "We found we were unable to take things seriously, and when the audience responded well, we went, 'Huh.'"

In an early number, "Art for Art's Sake," the quartet delightfully skewers New Age avarice: "Truth, beauty and love, I'd like you to meet my guru/ He came from above, he'll send you a mantra if you/ Give, give him your love and all your money/ He'll move to Brazil/ With bucks, bucks in the bank."

It could be argued that Oberst takes himself too seriously. His writing still teeters on the adolescent side of angsty the dark, heart-on-sleeve stuff associated with shaggy-haired rockers wearing tattered hoodies. Give the boy a clove, already. But he's got the talent to back his mewlings. For a musician only just old enough to rent a vehicle, his material is seamlessly arranged, veering from precious to legitimately soulful just often enough to win him Dylan comparisons.

Not that everyone is ready to jump on that bandwagon. "That whine of his makes it near impossible to listen to his lyrics, which occasionally are profound enough to be scrawled in high school yearbooks," sniffed a San Francisco Weekly critic. Well, maybe the Bobs' lyrical hijinx would be more to that reviewer's liking (the Bay Area gave birth to the quartet, after all). Happily, Asheville music fans have a choice.

Not that anyone's counting, but here's how Bright Eyes and the Bobs measure up:

The Bobs have released 11 full-length albums in 24 years; Bright Eyes has released seven (depending on how you're counting) in about eight years.

Oberst has performed with Emmylou Harris, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner and Spoon's Britt Daniel. He was caught on film making out with Winona Ryder. The Bobs have performed with the Oberlin Dance Collective, the Los Angeles Theater Center, the Minnesota Opera New Music Ensemble, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, and actor Jason Alexander (Seinfeld's George). They've not kissed Winona. Yet.

The Bobs have been labeled "the only New Wave a cappella group in history." Oberst has been called "the new Bob Dylan."

Bright Eyes sings self-important songs about love lost and drugs done (among other heavy topics). The Bobs deliver self-mocking arias about giant robots, hippies, Hindu deities, cowboys, Cincinnati and art. Ideas living on, as it were.

Posted by acapnews at November 19, 2005 3:14 PM