For the better part of a decade, Tara Jane O’Neil has quietly been making her mark on the indie rock scene. As part of the seminal Louisville, Kentucky group Rodan, she helped influence a new generation of post-rockers, and their only full-length release Rusty stands alongside Slint’s Spiderland as one of the most important albums of the early ‘90s. Since her stint in Rodan, O’Neil has ventured down different musical avenues, participating in a variety of acts, including the folk inspired Retsin, the experimental leanings of the Sonora Pine, and the straight up rock sting of King Cobra. But throughout, O’Neil has been perfecting her own craft, releasing two solo albums, 2000’s Peregrine and 2001’s In The Sun Lines. Both albums were marked by a serious sense of experimentation and spare instrumentation. Her third full length, You Sound, Reflect, finds O’Neil still toying with experimentation, but focusing more on the songwriting. Though the album is beautifully constructed, O’Neil can’t raise the melodies above the haunting atmospherics.
Starting with a haunted organ, “Take the Waking” is a beautiful opening to the record. A slow burner, it builds with shambling electric guitars, waves of slightly distorted chords and plaintive vocals barely surfacing before disappearing again. “Howl” revisits the old-time folk of Retsin, with Nora Danielson nicely accompanying O’Neil on the violin. “The Poisoned Mine” evokes a country dusted Nico, with acoustic guitars on the upswing and string accompaniment. “Love Song Long” finds O’Neil revisiting the post-rock structures of Rodan, albeit less intensely, and coupling it with aural experimentation, opening the track with jittery sheets of electric guitar string noise that would make Lee Ranaldo proud. But it’s “Without Push” that is the clear standout on You Sound, Reflect, and puts the rest of the record to shame. Featuring Unwound’s Sara Lund on drums, the track is a beautifully shambling folk number that finds its genius in a truly heart-stopping post-chorus guitar bridge. “Without Push” is the most accomplished song on the album, and leaves the listener wondering what gems are lurking in the other songs that appear incomplete beside this one.
O’Neil doesn’t leave her experimentation too far behind. Tracks like “Tracer”, “I Call You”, and “Ours Soared” are brief, yet effective, forays into soundscape territory and nicely act as a link between full-on songs.
Listening to You Sound, Reflect, O’Neil’s interest in the construct of a song sometimes comes at the expense of the content. You Sound, Reflect works best when listened to in small doses, rather than straight through. O’Neil’s atmospheric, minimal take on folk works best a few songs a time, as when listened to from beginning to end, the mood becomes repetitive.
Earlier this year Devendra Banhart offered up Rejoicing in the Hands, his own take on folk, that was compelling despite its stripped down aesthetic. O’Neil is a master craftswoman but has yet to find the final ingredient to truly make her material distinct. You Sound, Reflect isn’t a failure, but it doesn’t offer that certain je ne sais quoi to make it a recommended listen.