Album Review: Villagers – {Awayland}

I had my eyes / ears opened to Villagers in the autumn season of yesteryear, when I swung by the Warwick Arts Centre to watch Grizzly Bear perform on their Shields tour.  Villagers were the support act, but even with only nine songs dealt (with no recognition on my part whatsoever), I thought they completely owned the evening, even snatching it from the jaws of the towering Grizzlies.  Conor J O’Brien’s crew of maestros traded in a tempestuous set, one which left the Butterfield Hall rocking in their wake.

I delved into their backstory shortly after the gig, and found myself in thrall to their debut album Becoming A Jackal.  A folky, literate selection with the lightest touch of the Gothic in its veins, I could see why it had scooped the Ivor Novello prize and a nod for the 2010 Mercury.  Resultantly, the follow-up {Awayland} was one of the albums I was most looking forward to for 2013.  And it doesn’t disappoint: once again, O’Brien has proffered a strange storybook filled with the fantastical, set to frequently enrapturing landscapes of sound.

Although the firmly-plucked acoustics and O’Brien’s whimsical literacy remain, {Awayland} finds Villagers expanding their inventory, incorporating brass, frenetic rhythms and dashes of electronics into their sound.  Resultantly, it does sound a little disjointed as a whole album, with so many disparate pieces serving the whole, but by and large, the individual songs are captivating enough to safely designate {Awayland} as worthy of any music aficionado’s patronage.

Gentle opener ‘My Lighthouse’ is built around little more than a bendy guitar line and O’Brien’s clipped croon.  It’s a pretty and wide-eyed beginning, even if it does stop rather too abruptly for its own good.  So far, so Jackal.  But it’s with the next two songs that O’Brien really opens up the throttle and takes us on a thrill-ride.  ‘Earthly Pleasure’ really is something: beginning on a springy guitar motif, it builds and builds in urgency until it has morphed into a galloping beast, slashes of guitar rising from the conflagration to back O’Brien’s cries of “oh, Earthly pleasure, ring out / From the rigours of this road”.  It’s utterly captivating, not to mention slightly bonkers.

Better still is ‘The Waves’, the first single to leak online last year.  Borne on ripples of subtle electronics, O’Brien conjures up arresting imagery from the off, his delicate crooning pin-sharp as he sings of destructive forces advancing on unsuspecting shores.  Ominous pianos flutter in the background as the song gradually swells, gathering momentum as it approaches a fierce crescendo of squalling guitars, brass and crashing drums.  It’s a masterpiece of slow-burning drama, impeccably crafted and exhilarating when it reaches its proggy finale.  Fans of Wild Beasts will find plenty to admire here.

Thematically, when penning {Awayland}, O’Brien apparently became entranced with the notion of the “innocent abroad”, and in reflection of the album artwork, {Awayland} roots itself in escape and entrapment equally.  The sweeping vistas of ‘Grateful Song’ are matched by the uneasy stomp of ‘Judgement Call’, which ends with the threat “I’ll make your world a living hell / I’ve lost the will to judge myself”.  Whatever that child on the album cover is looking towards on the choppy horizon, it’s not as simple as innocence would dictate.

These sentiments are perhaps best highlighted in the form of ‘Nothing Arrived’.  Effectively the album’s centrepiece, it’s a deceptively simple singsong built around a cute piano descant.  For all its sweetness, however, after several listens, the aching sadness of the song really finds its clout.  The power is there in O’Brien’s anguished wail at the song’s climax, underpinning that sober murmur of “I guess I was busy / When nothing arrived”.  The resultant sound permeates a particular brand of soft beauty, which is quickly thrown off-balance by the sturm und drang of ‘The Bell’, its desert-baked riff heavy and theatrical as O’Brien launches into one of the catchiest choruses on the album.

It’s moments like these when the tone-hopping works well, though it doesn’t gel every time.  ‘Passing A Message’ sounds a little out of place with its itchy bass riff and malevolent tone, though it’s still impressive when it tumbles into a heap of cascading pianos, rumbling drums and images of Sequoia trees and paddlefish.  The focus is regained with ‘In A Newfound Land You Are Free’, a late-in-the-game lullaby which weaves a sap-free magic of its own, before the jaunty ‘Rhythm Composer’ tosses everything into the fray for one final rainbow-flavoured skip, joined by some of O’Brien’s bounciest vocals yet.

Does it hang together as a cohesive album?  Perhaps not: it’s a little too disparate in its aesthetics, leaping from one tone to the next.  It doesn’t quite preserve the same coherence as Becoming A Jackal, but musically and lyrically, these songs are individually riveting.  Lovers of beautiful, theatrical music should get themselves here, pronto.  As for the other challengers of 2013, make your moves…

7/10

“We gotta get the kids before they grow / God forbid they retain their sense of wonder.”

28/01/2013

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Posted on January 28, 2013, in The Music World and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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