thu 22/02/2024

Villagers, Village Underground | reviews, news & interviews

Villagers, Village Underground

Villagers, Village Underground

Clever-clever folk-rockers hint at a spontaneous side

Villagers: making you feel and thinkRich Gilligan

These days not all sensitive folk-rockers with trembling voices can bank on easy audiences. Villagers main man Conor O’Brien is one who can – he’s been selling out concerts like nobody's business. This gig was no exception. O’Brien may be plaintive but he also has the reputation for being one of the smartest, artiest writers around. One critic has described his new LP {Awayland} as the first great album of 2013. Like its strange brackets, it can also be quite challenging.

Almost every moment of gentle beauty on the record is matched by another of jarring electronica. Last night, although some of the progressive element was smoothed down, complexity still abounded. As O’Brien walked out onto the bare stage of Village Underground – an artsy, warehouse “space” in fashionable Hoxton – to the gentle strum of “My Lighthouse” his ambition was laid bare.

He sounded as if the weight of the world’s cowards was on his shoulders

In appearance, he looked small and unimposing. His powerful falsetto, however, projected words that went straight up your spine and into your brain. The song could be the band’s manifesto: to make the crowd both think and feel. Thereafter, unfortunately, the marriage of cerebral and emotional was not always so successful.

The most moving moments came in the more intimate songs. O’Brien says the overriding aim on the new album was to convey the experience of seeing the world for the first time like a small infant. On “In a Newfound Land You Are Free” – just him and a piano – he pretty much carried it off. And when he sang “my love is selfish” on “The Meaning of the Ritual” he sounded as if the weight of the world’s cowards was on his shoulders.

But louder tracks like “Set the Tigers Free” and “Passing a Message” felt sludgy and formless. There’s a knack to making such crossover folk/rock songs work. Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver have shown it done to perfection over the past year. The trick is to go for broke. As well as the band played – and Tommy McLaughlin on guitar was particularly impressive – there was a sense they never really made it to fifth gear. The closest they got was in “The Bell”. It was no coincidence that this was the best-received song of the middle section.

Volume, of course, is not really what gigs like this are about. What was most needed was variety and it came in the encore. If only the entire concert had been so consistently strong. O'Brien first came back alone to perform “That Day”. Direct but for a little ambiguity, it found him at his musical and lyrical best; Then the band joined O'Brien for “Rhythm Composer” which sounded like one of Neil Hannon’s jauntier pieces. “Becoming a Jackal” was a reminder of how genuinely poetic O’Brien’s words can be.

The evening ended with “Nothing Arrived”. For the second time, it brought a little welcome lightness to proceedings. The joyous thumping piano chords sounded like a euphoric ode to living in the moment. O’Brien had delighted the earnest crowd with his intellect for most of the night. He closed by hinting that, just possibly, he has a spontaneous side too.

Watch Villagers' video for "The Waves"

His powerful falsetto projected words that went straight up your spine and into your brain


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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