critic’s pick 310: aoife o’donovan, ‘in the magic hour’

aoife o'donovanOn her sophomore solo recording, Aoife O’Donovan ruminates on wonder and loss in a way that their proximity to each other all but vanishes. Some songs breeze with ease, others bear a marked chill. But the demarcation between the spirits and emotions here with us today and those that have seemingly left us are exquisitely blurred. So begins one of the most enchanting releases of the young year.

A veteran of the Americana ensemble Crooked Still, numerous all-star collaborations (most notably, the Goat Rodeo Sessions) and an splendid 2013 solo debut disc called Fossils, O’Donovan designed In the Magic Hour as a requiem of sorts for her 93 year old grandfather, enforcing along the way a connection to an Irish heritage that runs deep in the singer’s roots. But In the Magic Hour isn’t a Celtic session in the least. It’s a set of 10 songs presented as a gallery of portraits with musical strokes as defined and whispery as the lullaby-like tone of O’Donovan’s singing.

In a way, such a deceptively fragile framework brings up the most obvious but misleading comparison facing O’Donovan – namely, Alison Krauss. True, both singers share a delicacy and obviously plaintive appeal. But comparisons largely disappear after that. Since O’Donovan pens her own material (she wrote eight of In the Magic Hour’s 10 songs and co-wrote a ninth, Hornets, with Sarah Jarosz), her voice becomes a more deep seeded component of the album’s musical fabric.

That’s especially apparent on Donal Og, curiously the only traditional tune on In the Magic Hour. It rolls in on a wistful electric/acoustic wash like a night wave at low tide. Amid O’Donovan’s hushed chant of a vocal is the distant, stoic voice of her grandfather. What results is gentle but ghostly séance of a song told with quiet yet powerfully emotive strength. A similarly reserved restlessness pervades The King of All Birds where “family photographs, relics I’ve found” swirl abound in a subtle duststorm of banjo, strings (provided by the always inventive Brooklyn Rider) and O’Donovan’s lightly luscious singing.

The sense of reflection brightens with the twilight pop of Magic Hour, which opens with chiming keyboard chatter that could have sailed out of Pet Sounds. Perhaps O’Donovan’s most effortlessly effective blend of love and loss, the tune tags imagery of her grandfather’s distant voice (“singing far away like an evening star”) with visions of an even more personal mortality (“death is a lonely bride”).

It all sounds rather morbid, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. In the Magic Hour may delve into meditations that can’t help but seem weighty. What O’Donovan creates, however, is music that truly sounds lighter than air – and that is magic, indeed.



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