Tara Jane O’Neil's latest could be the beginning of a fruitful Laurel Canyon phase or another stop on her singular trail.
Musician and visual artist Tara Jane O’Neil has for her eighth full-length album finally gone the self-titled route. Though some over the years -- most notably Weezer, but also others like Tindersticks and Red House Painters -- have made a mildly confusing habit of eponymously naming multiple records, the self-titled release typically falls into one of a few categories. It has been the tried-and-true way to name a debut from Elvis Presley to The Smiths and beyond. It has also served as a way to indicate that an artist has arrived at their ideal sound or has turned a corner creatively, such as Metallica or Blur. Sometimes people just get tired of coming up with titles that don’t mean all that much anyway.
Tara Jane O’Neil doesn’t fit any of those categories. If the lack of a separate title suggests anything, it might be a simple way of saying “this is where I am now”. That is a sentiment easily gleaned in all of O’Neil’s solo output, going back to her extraordinary 2000 debut, Peregrine. Wandering in inspired curiosity, not a lack of direction, all O’Neil albums are different from one another to some degree, while at the same time part of an undeclared but unbroken chain -- or perhaps what O’Neil alludes to here in the comforting country-esque strummer “Laugh” as “the endless change of shape”.
The artist’s appraisal here is that Tara Jane O’Neil is her ‘singer-songwriter’ record, which is certainly accurate, if not wholly encompassing, way to put it. The first thing long-time listeners will likely notice is how clear and upfront her vocals are at times. At least, that is, in relation to her last album, the soft-cornered dream state Where Shine New Lights, which came out on Kranky in 2014. Where that collection had a fluid relationship with structure, in that it was secondary in service of atmosphere, the eleven songs here are not averse to verses and often have downright hummable choruses.
As intimate as Tara Jane O’Neil feels, community was crucial to its origin. Recording one-half of the album in Chicago at Wilco’s Loft Studio at the behest of Mark Greenberg of the Coctails, the dynamic guitarist James Elkington was enlisted to help, along with other musicians such as Gerald Dowd and Nick Macri. The rest came together at O’Neil’s home in California with the aid of an ensemble of collaborators and guest vocalists. The results are a kind of personal folk music; made by the individual, with the help of many, which communicates on an intimate, one-to-one level.
The Golden State’s ever-present sun and salt breeze warm and soothe the spaces and breaths in “Blow”, “Joshua”, “Laugh” -- everywhere, really. Tara Jane O’Neil could be the beginning of a fruitful Laurel Canyon phase, or another stop to gather and reflect on O’Neil’s singular trail.