Thursday, June 17, 2010

Villagers: Becoming a Jackal

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It's difficult to comfortably describe Becoming a Jackal. The album isn't particularly experimental but also doesn't sound like a retread of the singer-songwriter folk and full-band indie rock it recalls. Its production is clean, its arrangements precise and its vocals entirely audible, but its songs aren't likely to ever stumble their way onto commercial mainstream radio. It neither dwells in perpetual darkness nor bullshits that every little thing's gonna be alright. It whimpers as much as it barks and rumbles as much as whispers.

Villagers is fronted by Conor O'Brien, an Irish dude whose profile overseas has been steadily increasing thanks to a well-received album from previous band The Immediate as well as his solo Hollow Kind EP. Across the pond, overwhelmingly positive articles about the musician have made the rounds, with enamored critics euphorically comparing O'Brien to Conor Oberst (close), Elliott Smith (closer), Leonard Cohen (way off) and U2 (way, way off). Such praise is well-founded even if some of these comparisons are not, as Becoming a Jackal is one of 2010's best debut albums and an example of a record that works almost flawlessly from start to finish.

Jackal is defined by a remarkable consistency; written, co-produced and performed by O'Brien with the exception of strings and French horn, its songs sound like integral components of a unified whole, instead of 11 individual songs that just happen to live under one roof. This isn't to say that the songs feel overly similar; they don't, as each varies in both mood and execution. O'Brien interweaves guitar, strings, horns, keyboards and various other instruments throughout, with each song carrying its own distinct tone and pace, whether its in the gothic vision of "I Saw the Dead," the harrowing travelogue of "Home," the piss-off farewell of "Set the Tigers Free" or the nihilistic whirls of "That Day." In "Twenty-Seven Strangers," O'Brien even somehow manages to elevate an acoustic narrative about an exceptionally awful public transportation experience into a statement about life at its most repetitively mundane and our own inevitable worldly demise. With lo-fi becoming increasingly obnoxious as countless bands use technology to deliberately make their vocals unintelligible and their instruments more distorted than a Dylan and the Band Basement Tape - the musical equivalent of buying designer clothing that makes the wearer look like a Bowery bum - Jackal's bright production and emphasis on lyrical clarity come as a welcome relief.

O'Brien's vocals vary from song to song to good effect. On "The Meaning of the Ritual" and "To be Counted Among Men" he sings in a timidly fragile voice that meshes with the songs' sparse arrangements. His vocals seem to almost float on the air on "The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)," but take on sinister undertones on the perilous "Ship of Promises." And then there's "Pieces;" perhaps the album's most enveloping track, it begins with a quivering falsetto and ends with O'Brien howling as strings rise and fall as the song unravels. The singer's vocals manage to hold together somewhat abstract songs that address epic topics - childhood, the past, memories, death and, of course, love - without ever becoming too fatalistic. A conflicting mixture of sincerity and disingenuousness worthy of Will Sheff offers some humor, with O'Brien reeling off earnestly poetic lines like, "True love feeds on absences/ Like pleasure feeds on pain" all while cautioning that he's "selling you my fears" and that he's just "spitting words/ But there's no meaning."

It's an artist's deceit though; there are meanings on Becoming a Jackal, lots of them, and they unfold in the simplest of ways, whether it's in the way O'Brien sings a phrase like "homely sense of disarray" or in how the arrangements emphasize each song's content. Jackal is reminiscent of numerous genres without sounding exactly like any of them; it's impossible to casually write it off as folk-pop or indie-pop or whatever else. All the usual critical clich├ęs apply to O'Brien's record - phrases like "it warrants repeated listens" and "it reveals itself gradually" - and of course don't do justice to just how damn good this debut album truly is. Rare is the debut album that sounds like the work of an artist who's already mastered his craft, but Becoming a Jackal is exactly that.

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