Villagers | WIG253 | Released: 22/05/10
From the very first seconds of Becoming a Jackal, he’s got you. A faint drone of organ, joined by eerie strings and a cascade of piano that collectively casts a Hitchcock movie shadow before a hushed voice asks, “Have you got just a minute? / Are you easily led? / Let me show the backroom / Where I saw the dead / Dancing like children on a midsummer morn / And they asked me to join” – and then the music obliges by with a similar spectral sweep. ‘I Saw the Dead’ is an introduction to the vivid narratives, gripping poetry and melodic depth of Conor J. O’Brien – or as he likes to call himself and his cohorts, Villagers.
Over the course of 11 varied, subtle, complex and plain gorgeous songs, the Dubliner shows just why he is Domino’s latest signing. O’Brien namechecks David Axelrod, Jens Lekman, Robert Wyatt and Rufus Wainwright but you could equally add Paddy McAloon, Paul Simon and Randy Newman to the possible roots of this record.
Growing up in Dun Laoghaire, a southeast seaside Dublin suburb, O’Brien wrote his first song, aged just 12, a week after his older brother lent Conor his acoustic guitar. “Bizarrely enough, my first lyric was “When I’m walking down these streets, I feel like a monkey in the Arctic”. I haven’t told Domino that yet! The song was called ‘Psychic’, which was about being afraid of a psychic friend because he could read your thoughts. Yes, it was a weird one...”
Roald Dahl books, Jim Henson fantasy films (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) and a passion for model painting fed the teen Conor’s imagination, while his first band, formed with three friends from St. Conleth’s College in Ballsbridge, Dublin, defined the adult version. The Immediate were loved in Ireland for their whip-smart, literate bursts of melody, and their sole album In Towers and Clouds was considered the best homegrown debut since U2’s Boy back in 1980. But as the accolades escalated, the band shocked everyone by suddenly breaking up.
“It felt like ending an incredible long-term relationship. I’m terrified of bands now, so I do everything myself” says O’Brien, who created the artwork and played all the instruments on Becoming a Jackal (except for the strings and French Horn which were arranged by Villagers pianist/organist Cormac Curran).
After choosing the name Villagers - “I like the name because it doesn’t offend the songs” - O’Brien released The Hollow Kind EP in February 2009 and the 7” "On a Sunlit Stage" last October on the Any Other City label, run by Villagers drummer James Byrne. After signing to Domino, Becoming a Jackal was recorded in Villagers guitarist Tommy McLaughlin’s home studio, with Tommy engineering and co-producing alongside Conor. “We wanted to make it sound a bit like a Neil Young album, not to dress it up too much, like someone is whispering in your ear, but also to get the epic-ness at times.”
From restrained to unleashed, from a whisper to a literal howl, Becoming a Jackal mutates, intrigues and beguiles in equal measure.