Nora O'Connor has provided me with one of my toughest assignments yet. If I were to read a description of Til the Dawn, I'm not sure if I would bite, though in doing so I'd miss out on one of the most enjoyable records of 2004. The album consists of nine tracks, seven of which are covers that range from Fleetwood Mac's "That's Alright" to Squirrel Nut Zippers' frontman Jim Mathus's "Bottoms" and "Nightingale". Til the Dawn weighs in at just over a half hour, each song arranged to spotlight the voice over all else. On paper, it doesn't sound exceptional, but it succeeds beyond words.
Anyone familiar with Andrew Bird (and his Bowl of Fire), Archer Prewitt, the whole Bloodshot Records pan-continental family, or hell, anyone living within 50 miles of Chicago should already know O'Connor. Although Til the Dawn is O'Connor's first solo album, she's graced scores more with guitar and harmony, and is a live staple in her hometown. Her voice doesn't slap you around with showy tricks or shock you with innate weirdness. It is solid and versatile, as well as subtly yet disarmingly sexy. Plus, she's called in favors from pals including Bird, Ryan Hembrey (Manishevitz), Gerald Dowd (Robbie Fulks, Chris Mills) and Kelly Hogan (Kelly Hogan!). The assembled crew plays with clarity and without ornament, so that O'Connor's pipes are never overwhelmed or overshadowed.
O'Connor's own "My Backyard" is a sprightly tribute to her Chicago comrades: "I've got everything I need in my backyard". An appropriate introduction to the record, its sunny tempo belies melodic twists that demonstrate her expressiveness. When she sings of her friends, "I've got plenty of them / Thank God", she sounds proud yet sincerely relieved, and not without humor. Indeed, even the more somber moments on Til the Dawn give the impression that O'Connor takes joy in her work. "Bottoms" is down-and-out bluesy, but infused with a hopefulness that recalls the Carter Family (and O Brother) staple "I'll Fly Away". Andrew Bird's fiddling is gorgeous as always, coloring in the spaces between verses, but it always stops short of stealing the spotlight from the warm harmonized vocals. Even though she's a city girl, O'Connor completely earns the country numbers. It's not just Matt Weber's banjo plucked softly in the mix, just the guileless way she approaches every song. She's not grabbing for any elusive badge of authenticity. She just sings what she wants and sounds good doing it.
Stevie Nicks's "That's Alright", yanked from Fleetwood Mac's not-so-Rumourific Mirage, sounds like a deserved classic here. The song is unmistakably So-Cal gypsy-witch, but O'Connor still manages to make it her own. In fact, all the covers sound wholly lived in. If you didn't read the credits, and weren't familiar with the original material, you might not guess they weren't all written by O'Connor, despite the range of styles. The peppy "OK with Me", written by guitarist Matt Weber, segues right into the über-standard torch-country of "Love Letters".
The album's brevity ensures that it never wears out its welcome. Eminently hummable, it's almost over before you know it. "Revolver" is deceptively simple, its yearning almost palpable even in lines like "think I'm gonna varnish all the violins". "Come on over and let me love you", she sings and I'm inclined to get in the car, like, right now. Her own "Tonight" edges out "My Backyard" as the original of choice here, once again buoyed by Bird's violin and Weber's pedal steel. The chorus melody swoops into unexpected chords. She sings of trips to New Orleans and Windy City two-flat apartments. An album of all-O'Connor originals is something to cross your fingers for, though Til the Dawn establishes her as a deft interpreter, finally getting a bit of her own spotlight.