Better Oblivion Community Center bridges generations of indie rock

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Better Oblivion Community Center bridges generations of indie rock

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers performed at San Diego's Music Box on March 10.

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers performed at San Diego's Music Box on March 10.

Julianna Ress

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers performed at San Diego's Music Box on March 10.

Julianna Ress

Julianna Ress

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers performed at San Diego's Music Box on March 10.

by Julianna Ress, Arts & Culture Editor

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Singer-songwriters Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers stopped by San Diego’s Music Box on March 10 as their newly-formed duo Better Oblivion Community Center, uniting fans across generations of indie rock.

Oberst, a prolific artist of the mid-’00s famed for his emo-folk outfit Bright Eyes, and Bridgers, a relative newcomer praised for her wit in expressing sorrow and intimacy, surprise-released the self-titled Better Oblivion record in late January — one of the first great albums of 2019. Full of visceral Los Angeles imagery, wry humor and standout one-liners, it’s a joy to hear the two at completely different career stages challenge and play off each other.

This chemistry was evident in their stage performance as well. The San Diego show opened with the first track off the Better Oblivion record, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” a spare, gorgeous song showcasing the duo’s expert harmonizing. Oberst’s voice is warm and trembling, while Bridgers’s pierces wistfully.

“My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera,” Bridgers crooned to open the song, painting one of its several evocative scenes. “If it did I’d take a picture of myself / If it did I’d take a picture of the water / And the man on the off ramp holding up a sign that’s asking me for help.”

They then went straight into “Sleepwalkin’,” a highlight on the album. The rhythm change from the slow verses to the hurried chorus was far more explosive live than on record, as the two slammed their guitars in unison to build to the hook.

Lyrically, “Sleepwalkin’” is exemplary of Oberst and Bridgers’ kindred affinity for crafting abstract words to inexplicably sound great together.

“You like beer and chocolate / I like setting off those bottle rockets,” Bridgers sang the masterful consonance in her verse.

The two also delivered a cover of the Replacements’ 1987 song “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which was a fun version nearly identical to the original.

Several performances depicted how easily the two adapt to each other’s styles. “Exception to the Rule,” a cut from “Better Oblivion,” sounds like it could’ve been on Bright Eyes’ underrated 2005 album “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” with its pulsing synth and hazy vocal. “Would You Rather,” a duet between the two that appeared on Bridgers’s 2017 debut record “Stranger in the Alps,” finds them exploring themes of childhood and trauma so personal to her life.

One of the best moments of the night was when Bridgers gently sang familiar lyrics over a single guitar: “I know that it is freezing but I think we have to walk / Keep waving at the taxis, they keep turning their lights off.”

The awestruck audience immediately recognized the opening lyrics to the Bright Eyes fan favorite “Lua,” from the 2005 indie staple “I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning,” and a sea of cell phones arose to capture the moment.

It was moving to see Bridgers, a noted Bright Eyes fan whose music certainly draws influence from Oberst’s past work, express her appreciation for a song she, and most everyone in attendance, probably spent many years of teenage angst loving. The crowd sang along with her, but softly — like if they went above a whisper it might shatter the delicate moment.

Bridgers also sang Bright Eyes deep cut “Bad Blood” solo, and Oberst repaid the favor with a garage rock version of Bridgers’s song “Funeral,” off “Stranger in the Alps.” It was genuinely sweet to see the two share these gestures, and exhibited what makes them great as a duo — not just a mutual admiration of each other’s work, but a willingness to combine their cross-generational strengths into something new.

A performance of album standout “Dylan Thomas” came in the middle of set, and considering the fun, catchy nature of the track and the way the crowd responded to the romp, it was odd they didn’t decide to end the show with it.

Instead, the two encored with two ballads on the album, “Chesapeake” and “Dominos.” The crowd watched in near silence as they did with “Lua,” displaying equal respect to indie rock of present and past. In a time of growing ‘90s and early-2000s nostalgia, it’s comforting to know there’s still a legion of fans supporting the indie rock they grew up with as it evolves and adapts to new ideas. 

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