[sic] Magazine

Villagers – {Awayland}

Sophomore albums are legendary for the often negative and corrosive effect that they can have. This is particularly the case for artists who have shown massive promise on their debuts and yet stumble on tracks that are often thrown together in haste usually touring their first set of songs to the point of nausea. What great news it is therefore to report that Villagers have realised their status as a band to watch to one that must now be viewed as a main contender. In particular it represents a triumph for its driving force the huge songwriting talent of Conor J O’Brien who has absolutely nailed it to the post and laid a challenge to all comers this new year.

2010’s Becoming a Jackal was lauded with praise and conjured up echoes of great songwriters like Ed Harcourt , Conor Oberst and Paddy McAloon raising Irish hopes in musical terms that there might just be another ‘anointed one’ like Damien Rice who can take the wider world by storm. O’Brien however is from a different mold to the latter and his vivid narratives, gripping poetry and melodic depth are deepened on this excellent album {Awayland} which can be confidentially predicted will again demand the rapt attention of the Ivor Novello award panel.

O’Brien has taken his time and navigated through a period racked with self doubt and worries that he might be a ‘fraud’ which led him to explore a wider musical palette to infuse his songs with more depth and greater layers of instrumentation beyond the guitar. His first song released from the album last year ‘The Waves’ returns to the sea (a key theme of Jackal) but introduces lush electronic soundscapes and his distinctly intimately vocal style. It builds to a huge conclusion and marks a calling card which screams out his determination not to stand still. Opening song ‘My Lighthouse’ is more like the music contained on his debut and a real beauty of an almost spoken ballad which is a fine start. However you sense that {Awayland} is much more of a band album not least on songs infused with the sharp and powering guitar riffs of Tommy McLaughlin such as album standout ‘Earthly Pleasures’, It starts with the brilliant opening line that articulates what may be O’Brien’s own insecurity ‘naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth, when he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt’. Throughout O’Brien’s lyrics are first class nowhere more than on the five minute plus ‘The Bell’ where the band throw in Western sounding guitars and almost Bond like musical motifs. On the pounding piano lament ‘Nothing Arrived’ O’Brien produces a song which Michael Stipe would die to have written, showing again that two albums in he already touching the musical greats.

Other songs complete an album which is a filler free zone. ‘Passing a message’ is dark and threatening yet completely absorbing, while ‘In the Newfound land you are free’ shifts down a number of gears to almost echo Tom Waits but with an aching melody that will pay dividends on repeated listens. The whole thing is rounded off by the funky ‘Rhythm composer’ packed with humour (is that a donkey at 4.30?), swirling strings and jaunty drums so far removed from anything on Jackal that it could be different artist. In the final reckoning {Awayland} is a book smart album written by someone who is not afraid to be clever or to expand his already dazzling wordplay further. Villagers tour in February and until then this must have record full of twisted torch songs and off kilter creativity will provide fulsome satisfaction.