As Edgard Varese never said, the present-day singer/songwriter refuses to die. Indeed, there’s certainly a glut of young troubadours; acoustic guitars in hand, tenor-pitched throats set on melisma, they’re as common these days as cow dung in a pasture. A radio station in your reporter’s West Coast home burg even features such tune-smiths in endless rotation, rendering Dave Matthews, Jackie Greene, David Gray and the rest of their ilk unavoidable.
Damned if this writer can tell them apart, though, much less hear anything musically redemptive in their midst. As far as I can discern, the only ear-pricking distinction offered by Johns Mayer and Butler is the power to annoy, when one of their achingly earnest, backpacker-friendly lumps of audio tofu slouches onto the airwaves. Magazines like Mojo and Uncut aren’t exactly infallible in their coverage of this millenarian minstrel brigade, either. Recent press darlings Fleet Foxes admittedly have a nice line in rustic madrigal harmonies, but last I checked, there was already one CSN (and sometimes Y) in the world. And Bon Iver might as well be Bon Jovi, for all the impression his work has made around our way. Which is to say: none.
So when both radio and the press fail, we rely on friends and family to turn us on to the worthwhile stuff. Such was the case when one among the latter hipped me to Irish singer/songster Conor J. O’Brien. With his project known as Villagers, O’Brien is a new addition to the merry mob, yet thankfully the best of his debut disc, Becoming a Jackal, sprouts among the current ordure-ific crop like some unique Celtic wildflower.
Now, there are those of us for whom the internal BS detector starts redlining madly when phrases like ‘promising young talent’ heave into view. On the strength of said high points of this debut, however, O’Brien might in fact be worthy of such a handle. From the opening cut, he certainly knows how to get one’s attention. “I Saw the Dead” is a goosebump of a ballad, O’Brien’s vocal and a tingling piano/strings accompaniment creating an eerily appealing, Edward Gorey-like atmosphere. It recalls the now sadly obscure Hapless Child collection from the ‘70s, on which Robert Wyatt, Carla Bley, and other art-rock luminaries placed Gorey’s New England Gothic yarns in appropriately sepulchral musical settings. O’Brien’s upper register has tinges of Wyatt, in fact, and when you read he lists Wyatt among his creative inspirations, it all fits somehow.
The rest of Becoming a Jackal finds O’Brien blending the light and shade, allure and unease. Over these 11 songs, O’Brien maintains his intriguing vibe with spare musical arrangements (playing everything but strings and horns) and a subtle, intimate croon. The songs display a fair amount of stylistic range, as well, be it the deft tango of the title track, “Set the Tigers Free”’s end-of-affair bossa nova, the clockwork stroll of “That Day”, or the relaxed folk-rock of “The Pact (I‘ll Be Your Fever)”.
O’Brien’s lyrics, meanwhile, are evocative and imagistic enough, even occasionally (as on the title track) mildly confronting the listener directly, a device that fortunately comes off more effective than pretentious. His vocals capably bear the weight: some have drawn positive comparisons to countryman Damien Rice, but this listener is also reminded of a fellow trader in urbane pop, Simon Aldred of the British group Cherry Ghost. The only genuine misstep to be found is the penultimate “Pieces”, on which O’Brien aims for emotional honesty, only to founder in histrionics.
In this time when so many on the singer/songwriter scene refuse to, if not die, at least dial it back a taste, O’Brien and Villagers offer up a debut with enough substance and possibility to certainly be allowed to live. And with time, luck, and sufficient pairs of ears, hopefully even bloom.