‘{Awayland}’, Villagers

Released 11th January 2013 on Domino

Released 11th January 2013 on Domino

Villagers struck quite a note with their self-contained, well-written debut Becoming A Jackal. He could quite easily have lived off the indie folk crowd, fond of lyrical wit and vulnerability (I mean, just listen to any of Bright Eye’s songs), but the group, now much more than simply a platform for frontman Conor O’Brien, have gone in a very different direction indeed with {Awayland}.

While the opening track, ‘My Lighthouse’, begins in a familiar, stripped-down manner, with some added Bon-Iver-laden vocal doubling, the next few tracks introduce some thoroughly unpredictable electronic elements. Indeed, about half the tracks are built on electronic blip-tracks and drumbeats, synths featuring heavily in points such as in ‘The Waves’, and O’Brien really runs away with vocal new sound effects. That’s not to say that the folkier tracks have disappeared – ‘In a New Found Land You Are Free’ for example, is extraordinarily intimate and beautiful – it’s just more of an adventurous album with regards to influence. Prog rock looms heavily in the driving, twisted ‘Earthly Pleasure’ and ‘The Bell’ is awash with unexpected musical developments, a Spaghetti Western riff lead by Guitar and Hammond organ of over a bluesy acoustic chord progression and bursts of big band horns. ‘In a NewFoundLand’ swirls with cinematic textures, as does the title track, an instrumental, which take clear influence from Post-Rock. It’s like… Future-Folk.

However, this eclecticism doesn’t always work; at times, vocal effects or strange chords changes seem out of place, horns are added for the sake of it, and several tracks end completely unnecessarily with electronic noise. While the negative effects of these choices on the music passes quickly, it reduces the coherence of the album as a whole. On the other hand, the music is generally of such a high quality that it becomes endearing; Villagers have been given the opportunity to really play around with their sound having established themselves so well with the debut album, and in the end, it feels youthful and energetic, if not fully developed and polished.

Despite its wonderful development later in the record, the album does stumble somewhat fairly early on. ‘Earthly Pleasure’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘Judgement call’, while very different musically, don’t differ much in pace or tone, which undermines the development at beginning of the album as a whole. ‘Judgement Call’ and ‘Nothing arrived’, furthermore, are not particularly fantastic songs. The former is dull, with boring lyrics and comes out as a fairly run-of-the-mill pop song. Whereas the latter sounds almost like it belongs to a band – it really reminded me of the second half of Bloc Party’s ‘A Weekend in the City’, with a fairly generic sound that that just blends into itself, ending with a predictable build-up over a repeated chorus. Not necessarily bad songs, just uninteresting, especially in the context of the rest of the album, which revels in musical experimentation. Moreover, the chorus of ‘Earthly Pleasures’’ feels out of place with the winding tale it tells, as if it was added for the sake of having a chorus in order to compensate its strangeness.

The lyrics in ‘Earthly Pleasure’, however, are exemplary of the skill O’Brien continues to display when writing lyrics. The opening line, for example, is already often quoted in reviews: “Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth,/ When he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt”, the song develops into an engaging story. Throughout the album, his lyrical flair astounds, as he draws images professional writers would be proud of. ‘The Waves’ reminded me of T. S. Eliot, for example: “There are waves/ Up in the diamond sky/ Stronger than you and I/ Am a wave”, which would not be surprising if it was intentional. However, like Eliot, O’Brien does get a little caught up in his own brilliance: ‘The Bell’ is a 5-minute tribute to the fundamental incapability of language to communicate.

It is this lyrical ability that really supports the vocals; while engaging, O’Brien does not have a wide range or a particularly rich voice, and so the vocal melody are consistently calm, low and unadventurous, and long held notes (though few) really reveal his flaws. However, despites his limits, he consistently remains engaging due to three reasons; firstly, the content of his singing, secondly, the well-executed use of vocal doubling and thridly, the support from the band.
Despite my focus on O’Brien, and although Becoming a Jackal  felt very much like a solo album, {Awayland}  feels through-and-through like it was written by a band. The music and vocals slot together in an effortlessly compact and fantastic way, supporting and complimenting each other, with well-timed drum breaks, adding and removing instruments and wonderful textures. ‘Passing a Message’ and ‘Rhythm Composer’ both demonstrate this fact, giving real credit to Villagers’ song writing capabilities as a group.

{Awayland} is a very interesting record. It is full of ideas, even if not all of them work, and although it doesn’t have not much coherence as a full album, the talent is obvious especially in this more adventurous guise. It’s well worth listening to despite its flaws: Villagers have written some fantastic music, but it will doubtless divide fans of the first album.

An edited version of the above review also appears on the Oxford Student website.

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