Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Up, up and away with Villagers

You have to admit that it looks very good. As Conor O’Brien prepares to release the “Becoming A Jackal” album next month, his Villagers’ ducks are lined up in a row. Excellent early reviews (including a rave from Jon Pareles …

Wed, Apr 14, 2010, 12:11

   

You have to admit that it looks very good. As Conor O’Brien prepares to release the “Becoming A Jackal” album next month, his Villagers’ ducks are lined up in a row. Excellent early reviews (including a rave from Jon Pareles in the New York Times), a barnstorming appearance on BBC2′s Later last night (the only TV show which really counts for music fans in these parts) and fantastic word-of-mouth from the live shows to date mean this campaign is, as they say, perfectly set up.

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And then, you hear the album. That deserves a new paragraph at the very least.

“Becoming A Jackal” has haunted me since I first heard the songs. Like all the best experiences, I wanted to dive in again right away and relive the highs all over again because it was truly something to relish. From the very first proper listen, it’s obvious that O’Brien is already a songwriter who has the measure of his craft and knows that sometimes less is more when it comes to allowing songs to scar and stir your soul. There’s depth, intensity, beauty and confidence galore here.

He’s a master of detail – the literary reportage demonstrated on “Twenty Seven Strangers”; how “I Saw The Dead” sets a spooky, uneasy, unsettling tone in the most subtle, shadowy, quietly menacing manner possible; the orchestral elegance grounding “Pieces” giving way to a howling, almost ghoulish swirl of devilment. Then, there’s a song like “Home”, a gentle, hugely engaging wash of grace and harmonies which tugs at your heartstrings. Truly, it’s an album a cut and a dash ahead of everyone else.

Make no bones about it, O’Brien will be with us in this game for the long haul. Last night won’t be his last encounter with Jools Holland – indeed, it probably won’t even be his last encounter this year. Then, there’s the fact that he has a secret weapon in the shape of the band. Remember that most people outside Ireland have encountered Villagers to date as a solo venture and have been simply wowed by O’Brien and those songs. When you add a talented bunch of players who know how to embellish those tunes without losing the essence of the sound, it’s another reason for sustained applause and ovations.

Some, naturally, will point to the fact that O’Brien now has Domino in his corner as a reason for his current advancement. That’s all very well and Domino are a fine, fine label, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s O’Brien’s songs which are causing all this fuss. As far as I know, we didn’t have the man from the NY Times or Later going gaga for the Archie Bronson Outfit. No, this heartwarming fuss over the Dubliner is all down to the songs he has written and is performing with aplomb.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that “Becoming A Jackal” is O’Brien second “debut” album. Over the last few weeks, I listened to The Immediate’s “In Towers and Clouds” a couple of times and the thrill remained the same as it did back in 2006 when this was my soundtrack for a couple of months. It’s still wide-eyed and sharp, a great modish clatter with emotion, spirit and brio.

I interviewed O’Brien when that album came out and have pulled this quote from the tapes which could well be written for the adventure that awaits him in 2010 and beyond. “We’ve always been obsessed with the idea of art. So many people produce such crap. They don’t use this thing called writing or art as a tool to get whatever they have inside which is really good across to the world. They call themselves artists, but you don’t have an automatic right to be an artist, you have to earn it. We’re earning that right because that we treat it with such care. We know it’s a strange thing to want do for a living, but the better the work you do, the more you earn the right to do it.”

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