[14 February 2014]
Where Shines New Lights is a dreamy, droney, lo-fi and very downtempo affair, appropriate for spaced-out afternoons staring at the falling snow or, perhaps, late nights contemplating the fire burning down in the grate. Portland, Oregon’s Tara Jane O’Neil has been putting out records for the better part of 15 years now, and her latest channels a kind of narcotic cloudiness that makes it surprisingly appropriate for any number of moods. Its morphine-laced grooves won’t encourage anyone to jump up and dance, or even worry much about getting the dishes done, but its rich range of sound create a lush pocket of sound that envelops the listener and whisks him/her away to some other, softer place.
The dominant sounds here are guitars, bass and synth, all oozing together into a syrupy mix that only occasionally allows for a particular instrument to stand out. Permeating everything is O’Neil’s lilting voice, which tends toward the little-girl stylings of, say, Julie Miller, but without the quirkiness. That voice is heavily reverbed – hell, everything on this record is heavily reverbed – lending it a layered texture that helps it blend with all the other instrumentation. This effect is even more pronounced when O’Neil sings harmony with herself, which is frequently. Actually, O’Neil often doesn’t sing, so much as exhale. In harmony.
The first couple tracks act as something of an introduction, which is to say that their effects tend to the ambient more than anything else. The middle portion of the album sees a number of songs that pay marginally more respect to the expected structures of pop songs, with verses and choruses and so forth. “Glow Now” brings an increased dynamism into the mix, while “The Lull the Going” and “Elemental Finding” both benefit from discernible melodies. The former also sports some readily identifiable guitar strumming for the listener to hang on to, while the latter’s muscular bass line helps move that forward, thrumming rhythmically like a portentous grandfather clock.
Later, the album as a whole reverts to something somnambulant, or perhaps under water. This is by no means a bad thing; O’Neil taps a vibe here and milks it for all it’s worth, which is a good deal. On the other hand there is little variation from song to song in terms of approach or, I suspect, intended effect; this is a polite way of saying that if the first two or three songs bore you, the others are likely to do the same.
The album finishes much as it began: with long drones of synth and bass and occasional flutters toward something more traditionally “songlike”. “Bellow Below As Above” is, essentially, nothing more than drone, a three-minute-plus introduction for final track “New Lights for a Sky”. This five-minute tune is the longest on the album (by a lot; most songs hover around the two-to-three-minute mark) and in its way perhaps the most satisfying. Not because of its structure, which is as murky and loose as anything else here, but because of the depth of sound and the relative complexity of sonic textures being presented. Not to mention some of the sweetest vocals on the whole album.
Needless to say, this album is an unorthodox work by a musical iconoclast. This is a good thing. We already have plenty of Beyoncés and Brittanys and Rihannas and Katys, not to mention the dozens if not hundreds of others trying hard to be just like them. As far as I can tell, there is only one Tara Jane O’Neil. She is worth listening to.