Recording information: Flora Recording and Playback, Portland, OR (09/2014-03/2015); MSR Studios, New York, NY (09/2014-03/2015).
Photographer: Joanna Chattman.
The twin powers of the road and memory are powerful, beguiling forces for singer/songwriters. Aoife O'Donovan is no exception. In the Magic Hour is her sophomore album. Written mostly during a solitary respite from traveling, its intimate songs are haunted by the emotional resonance of memory. The life and passage of her 93-year-old grandfather and her childhood visits to his Clonakilty seaside village in Ireland loom large over these recordings. Re-teaming with producer Tucker Martine, the pair built these tunes from the barest of essentials -- usually just her voice and a guitar -- before a studio band and carefully woven contributions of collaborators (including Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile, Brooklyn Rider, Rob Burger, Eyvind Kang, and Tony Furtado) were added. Employing standard folk-rock instrumentation, the words in "Stanley Park" could be a closing song rather than an album opener: "...If I could take my rest/Back in the belly from where I came/nobody knows my name." Burger's piano highlights the lilting melody on the horizon of her poignant lyrics but never gets maudlin. The title track is brighter, framed in an arrangement that approaches Baroque pop. Pump organ, Wurlitzer, Watkins' fiddle, crisp snare, and reverbed electric guitars bump under O'Donovan's in the rear view lyrics. "Donal Og" commences with long, modal, droning electric guitars, its undercurrent of Celtic melody is sad and wistful in a narrative that's equally painful and affirmative. The voice of her grandfather wafts in from the margins in its closing moments, underscoring its poignancy. Gabriel Kahane arranges the strings for Brooklyn Rider on "The King of All Birds," a minor-key, acoustic-electric rocker with winds and brass patched into its final frames to add texture and harmonic imagination. Furtado's banjo, Watkins', fiddle, and Laura Veirs' backing vocal adorn the shimmering, heartbroken waltz "Not the Leaving." It's answered by "Detour Sign," in which O'Donovan's protagonist blows up a relationship, deciding love is not enough in facing of her life challenges. Amid the meld of guitars, the Wurlitzer erects the tune's spine; it buoys the words -- which admit regret even as they decide a course of action -- as well as the rest of the instrumentation. Closer "Jupiter" contains words that almost contradict it. Amid bittersweet memory, temporal displacement, and the tension of greeting an uncertain future, the protagonist concludes in the resolve that love triumphs. The vanguard folk-cum-art song music is bracing, led by the strings of Brooklyn Rider. In the Magic Hour lives up to its title. O'Donovan's sometimes searing, always poetically rendered lyrics are matched by astute, economically articulated melodies. These songs leave listeners with the impression that they actively chose to grant emotions and memory places as proper collaborators here. O'Donovan seems certain that as she allows them voice, the trails they carve in the heart become as priceless as what they teach. ~ Thom Jurek
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