Villagers - {Awayland}


Variance has increasingly become one of the more important and defining properties to any album or record. While it remains important that a person's music - in the context of a whole album - keeps to some form of tonal underpinning or relation with one another, to drift from one track to the next and hear a shift in instrumentation remains undeniably one of the better things we look for in an album. While Ireland's Villagers may be one of the lesser extroverted of bands - sounds slowly simmering as opposed to burning passionately - it's this particular project of Irishman singer-songwriter Conor O'Brien that manages to hold an underlining identity while still providing enough variance in sound and melody to warrant something of a highlight. Villagers' debut LP worked around the more comforting closely-tucked side of rock; the music's reminiscent subject matter and glowing held-back approach reminding me of similar approaches to music you'll find from likes of The Microphones, The Dismemberment Plan...and to end the name-drop with a fellow countrymen, solo artists like Damien Rice. I come to O'Brien's sophomore release under the Villagers name, {Awayland}, with a cautious, but still uplifting sense of anticipation then as to how the Irishman can best this. And if so, how he goes about responding to what is already a hushed closed-off sound he's made for himself.

There's no allusion to any change on opening track My Lighthouse, which here sets itself out like the very slow simmering of embers we've come accustomed to. Guitar strums nestle softly in the middle-ground, O'Brien's voice having something of a drifting weightless texture to it. 'I am searching the tide, in the vessel of the storm/And you are the kind host in the port' he expresses in still something of an uncertain, or perhaps purposefully insecure tone of voice. And to emphasize it, the double-tracking of more whimpered emotion in the background makes the lyrics out to be something more somber or hopeful of improvement. There's less an emphasis on perhaps the emotional side of the subject matter, but O'Brien certainly tries his best to exempt any contradictory belief this is anything but slight melancholy. With Earthly Pleasure however, O'Brien comes across more content and comfortable in opening out to his audience, instrumentation - in all its glacial strumming of guitars, claustrophobic percussion and waning harmony of voices - is arranged a lot better and gives more of an appealing plane to O'Brien's unconventional, and perhaps a little bizarre, form of lyricism. And the way the track builds and builds until it reaches this driven-to-the-corner intensity matches the simmered and slightly whimsical mutterings that O'Brien spells out.

The Waves is definitely one of the album's finer moments however, and a momentary example of Villagers' expanding into more an ethereal, non-human persona. There's a morse-code like uttering of electronics, piano too treading its way across O'Brien's journeying deliverance of vocals. There's guitars too and more of this low-ground burial of drums that act to give weight to the music, but the contrast between the murmur of instrumentation and this continuing repetition of electronics creates a tense but suitably calm means for the track to emphasize the track's acoustic-sounding deliverance while still treasuring this distant, withdrawing narrative it creates through the increasing use of electronics and reverb that gets added more to layer by layer as the track reaches its climax. Judgement Call emphasizes Villagers' reaching out approach and allures more to the manner in which the production on this record tends to be held in more of a higher regard than the previous album. The structure feels a lot more controlled and stable, despite the ascent of electronics fluttering just off-shot and guitars forcing a slightly shaky, slightly off-road detour in the way the track progresses. But again, O'Brien's repeated calls through chorus sections maintain something of a sustainability to how the track layers and manages the influx of instrumentation present. Progressing through the album, flickering from one stance in this fairly alone, fairly reactive state of mind, you gain more of an assurance that O'Brien knows how to direct and place his vocals amid the tracks.

Certainly this album comes across a lot more polished and pristine, but the focus more on the end result doesn't seem to add falter to O'Brien's lavish textural deliverance alongside lyrics that may paint him more in the same shade of down-prodding self-doubt. The Bell is one of those tracks then that fits more the neutral ground where emotion doesn't really dominate or decide the path the music is often going to take. There are hints of joyous tones in the care-free strum of guitars as much as there is an enriching case for prolonging in the wail of strings. And amidst it all, O'Brien comes across like even he's not even sure whether to be happy or sad. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing, as his tone of voice and meeting with the pattern of guitars gives the music its more rhythmic emphasis. And yet, the strings remain present, never going away, and when the track builds to some potential climax, they return with that same heart-tugging wail of high-end notes that only prolong what could be some eventual outpour of an emotion. Indeed, O'Brien's closing suggestion of a grander spectacle, via the music's engrossing mesh of instruments: strummed guitars, echoing piano keys, crashing percussion, does offer a sense of a more deep-rooted secrecy we're not exactly been given the full light on. But admittedly, the first thought that runs through my head when tracks on this album tend to lead off rather than conclude altogether, either musically or conceptually, is of a sense of slight alienation and perhaps a longing for music that's more concrete or coherent. There's definitely more of a straight-and-narrow approach in O'Brien's song-writing, but that ultimately feels like it comes at the expense of what made Villagers' debut such an entertaining listen in its two-fold success as both varied, yet intricately compelling from one track to the next.

The title track doesn't necessarily engage with me enough as I'd want it to, or give me any reason to react as much as other tracks on this album do. Likewise, Passing A Message gives the impression that its flicker of bass strings and looping cymbal hits is building up to something far more compelling, and yet despite the heavy weight of piano and drums that adds to the sound later on, the track as a whole doesn't exactly go places or suggest a sense of narrative adventure for me to feel engrossed or a part of the musical demographic. But when O'Brien is at his most somber and stripped-back, it gives me more of an understanding and sense of content with why the Irishman finds himself in this position. As is the case with the track Grateful Song, it opens up fairly bare and vulnerable amid the slow passing of violin strings and halted strum of guitar. It only gives the more spiritual unveiling and unleashing of more centralized tones and explosive atmosphere of strings, a much headier and emphatic effectiveness to its deliverance. The final track Rhythm Composer definitely contests itself as having one of the better balances between lyrical importance and musical hierarchy. O'Brien does come across somewhat middle-ground in its lyrical deliverance, but the music's bubbly sloping of guitars, cellos and percussion gives the track a fair and lavish colour in its creased textures. Even as the track's composition begins to garner something of a messy echo in its repeated ushering of vocals and bloom of bass, the track loses none of its glimmer and sense of joyous emotion, even when the track for its final fifth somewhat finds itself twenty thousand foot in the air and reverts to a kind of wandering experimentation of catchy synthesizer beats and droning yawns of brass.

I don't think it's a hard decision in deciding which of the two Villager's records I'm inclined to return more to if you take more than just slick production or instrumental variety into account. True, I am for the majority of cases, pleased with how O'Brien has dipped his toe somewhat into the use of more electronic elements here on {Awayland} and so too his decision in giving his songs more of a cleaner end production. But there are times, especially when the Irishman tends to give off more of a personal or responsive subject matter in his voice and his vocal deliverance, that the music itself tends to leave me hanging with little sense of closure, as opposed to giving me something of a fulfilled sense of understanding. Certainly Villagers' sound is one that is full to the brim with ideas and all manner of emotion - O'Brien is definitely one of those musicians who can make grown men glee with joy in one moment, and then appear despondently sad the next - but that still doesn't pardon the somewhat trivial complacency in O'Brien's mixing and mending of all these differently lavish instruments. Still, if you're going to muck with the formula and come away with a slight hiccup of unconvincing placement, at least do it - much like O'Brien has - by counteracting with some convincing credential in how to orchestrate and how to lead.


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Discovery: Villagers - {Awayland}
Villagers - {Awayland}
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