Album of the week: Lisa O’Neill - Pothole in the Sky

Thu, Apr 21, 2016, 16:07


Pothole in the Sky

Lisa O'Neill


Singer / Songwriter

What are we to make of Lisa O’Neill? Is she a strange wee thing or what? Ten years or so into her almost accidental career, this Cavan woman has contrived to create a sound and a vision that is hers and hers alone.

At a time when sameness threatens to drain the world of charm and surprise, Lisa O’Neill stands tall for difference, as an outlier with a mission to frame the world as she sees it and to perform it accordingly.

This is her third album and while it would be stretching it to claim that it is a thing of beauty, these 11 tracks carry a thread of haunting intensity. In the same way that fellow Border artist Pat McCabe celebrates the local with a heightened and almost surreal sense of good and evil, O’Neill situates her dark-humoured songs in a world of rural mystery and celestial wondering.

Aside from the intriguing title track, the heavens cast their spell on two other tracks, the frustrated howls of Planets and the more plangent Seven Sisters which contains the line: “What is important is feeling the hurt . . .” This is central to understanding O’Neill’s music. The search for authenticity, the value of the lived experience, the strangeness of the normal. Even her lament for Brian Boru’s widow, Gormlaith’s Grieving, gives voice to a woman’s experience in a man’s world.

The settings for these disconcerting observations are suitably skeletal and stark. Her plucked acoustic guitar is coloured occasionally by ferocious fiddle, battered piano, banjo and some moody electronics.

But it is her almost-croaked voice which is the real star. Her singing is always filled with meaning and passion, whether it is the tender, moody reflection of Red Geansaí, the more volatile Nasty, the ambitious The Hunt or the mock-heroic Black Sheep. And her accent and use of language remains rooted in Cavan, adding a sweet, quirky tone and a distinctive sense of place. In addition, her singing style owes much to sean-nós; traditional affectations run very deep.

That said, Pothole in the Sky is no easy listen, though patience has its reward. Over the three albums, O’Neill has moved from offbeat ingenue to a compelling, singular talent. Her voice is her own. No small achievement.