I have a hard time lumping Tara Jane O’Neil into the singer-songwriter genre to which she’s often resigned. Okay, she’s a folkie who primarily plays guitar, writes songs, and sings the songs she writes. But consider this: In the early ‘90s she sang and played bass in Rodan, the key developer of the fleshy, theatrical wing of math-rock. Its dissolution in 1994 spawned Rachel’s, June of 44 and O’Neil’s own Sonora Pine, three groups that nicely captured the post-rock tendencies of that decade. At the same time, she was playing folk music as Retsin alongside Cynthia Nelson (whose Ruby Falls had been the only all-female math-rock band of any significance), although they initially sounded closer to Slint than Tori Amos and never quite lost their angularity as they veered toward the middle of the road. So steeped in this aesthetic was she that her first solo record in 2000—a showpiece for acoustic guitar and songs about streets, birds and barrooms—was more of a pivot than a turnabout, carrying the atmosphere of a beautiful post-rock enigma instead of the coarse and flighty singer-songwriter brick it doubtlessly would have become in someone else’s hands.
The music she’s been making under her own name since that record, Peregrine, doesn’t fit well with our assumptions of what a solo guitarist/multi-instrumentalist usually generates; at the risk of sounding cavalier, you just have to hear it to believe it. It’s moody but not depressing, pretty but not precious, sedated but not numb. Best not to get too caught up in the lyricism—surreal and jarring and heavy—and admire her voice instead, an alluring purr that seems to be forever paying tribute to earthen comforts. There’s comfort, too, in the consistency of the path she’s cut for herself. Changes from album to album have been apparent but incremental, amounting to a series of small steps forward and small steps back without an overhaul to speak of. The music hasn’t truly gone anywhere in nearly a decade, which is to say that it always sounds like Tara Jane O’Neil and it always sounds great.
A Ways Away is a retreat from 2006’s In Circles in both attitude and quality, but only slightly. That’s sorta to be expected after In Circles upped the brightness and folky immediacy and earned some of the highest marks of O’Neil’s career. Contributing to the slight ‘underwhelming’ factor is that A Ways Away is only about half the unique album it appears to be: “Howl” is an update of the same song from 2004’s You Sound, Reflect, and “Dig In” and “Pearl Into Sand” are live favorites featured on her 2007 album + art book, Wings Strings Meridians. That said, O’Neil sounds as comfortable as she’s ever been playing this relatively introverted material, and established fans—especially those of her first two proper albums and the underrated EP TKO—will find a lot to like. Highlights come early, first with “Dig In”, a winding river of mystery folk with just the right amount of low-end rumble and a rhythm created from sleigh bells. (Those who caught O’Neil with Ida in 2008 will remember shaking the bells she handed out for this song, easily the show’s sweetest moment.) “In Tall Grass” floats her upper-register vocals, harmonized to perfection, over an agreeable combination of plucks and strums.
O’Neil often sounds as if she’s singing to us from a distance, but it’s a place deep inside her rather than a faraway locale. That’s the common thread between these songs, although she’s found an impressive variety of ways in which to signify detachment. “A New Binding” does this most literally with a dulled and hollow effect imposed on the vocals. On “Drowning”, she sounds clear but distracted, just as the song that surrounds her doesn’t feel all the way there. Maybe it’s the video for “A Vertiginous One” that’s lent it an air of creepiness on record, but this, along with O’Neil’s more muted and overtly distant singing, suggests that she doesn’t want to be inside the song’s milieu. And “Pearl Into Sand”—a dead ringer for “Dig In” on a double dose of Valium—is completely instrumental, which is pretty brilliant: It’s as if the words are still there, but have been squelched into inaudibility by the heady emotions she’s been pouring over us all along. If this is the tenor of A Ways Away writ large, “Howl” is the record’s awesome curveball. O’Neil strips the murk off of the original to reveal one of the saddest and starkest songs in her entire oeuvre. The melody is hardly a difficult one, but the way her syllables follow its ups and downs so tentatively makes it seem as though it took guts just to sing it. Listen to her voice now—it’s trembling.
I’m reluctant to mention the fact that several distinguished musicians provided instrumental backing—including new contributors like Mirah—as anything beyond a footnote. Not only is A Ways Away a strikingly personal record (without the need for bleary confessionals and other facile bullshit), but its melodies, production, and themes are quintessentially O’Neil in a manner that her admirers have now come to expect. The post-rock attributes of atmosphere and angularity remain part and parcel of her music 15 years after she helped put the genre on the map, but the way that she’s kneaded them into a sincere folk foundation cements her eponymous material as the most worthwhile post-Rodan project she’s ever been involved with. That this is as true of Peregrine and any other Tara Jane O’Neil record as it is of A Ways Away is more a sign of solidity than sterility. No, it won’t blow the hat off your head, but a life-changing album simply isn’t as appropriate as a life-affirming one, as far as this artist is concerned, and A Ways Away is another clean bill of health for a long and rewarding career.