Villagers – Whelan’s, Dublin

Villagers at Whelans   Review Villagers at The Workmans Club Feature

Villagers at Whelan’s on November 13th 2012

Rising from the rubble of scene heroes The Immediate, it’s fair to say Villagers‘ debut ‘Becoming A Jackal’ had something of a head start over your typical Dublin band’s first outing. It didn’t need it. The subtle, inventive tones rammed home what we all already knew about Conor O’Brien – he writes unforgettable, emotive, soul-searching tunes that have become a high watermark for Irish music over the past few years.

Long awaited follow up ‘{Awayland}’ then, has a certain amount of inherent pressure, and tonight’s gig – set as it is a full two months before the album sees the light of day – is a heady first glance at what’s to come next. When Villagers arrive, their ‘speak through the music’ set up, has the confident air of a band who know they’re about to hit another peak: he’d never be so crass as to say it, but O’Brien knows ’{Awayland}’ is far more than just an adequate follow up.

At a nineteen track setlist, Conor’s certainly not holding back. That leaves room for plenty of old smashes, with the likes of Ship Of Promises and a belter of a scuzzy, rock-out guitar closer on The Waves spattering the set with familiarity. There are adaptations too, with The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever) in particular adding a soaring instrumental peak to the accessible angles of the album version, but it’s the newbies that has the crowd whispering between songs in excitement. Parts of ‘{Awayland}’ might have been aired to a lucky few at the last minute in Elastic Witch a month or so ago, but this will really have fans talking.

What stands out first is that ‘{Awayland}’ is set to be a more varied offering than the introverted style of its predecessor. Even at a single listen and despite that usual air of existential crisis, heavier, percussion-like backing tracks emerge from the quieter corners, adding intense textures to the themes that creep from Conor’s usual morose poetry. The imagery of a tiny bobbing vessel in a tumultuous sea searching out life’s lighthouse is a recurring one, while the howling of the jackal seems to have given way to the repressed self-loathing of a series of canine imagery. The exact intention of O’Brien’s repeated use of the dog is difficult to grasp straight off, but it runs through perhaps half a dozen of the newer tracks, and looks set to be the binding theme.

Rhythm Composer is perhaps the biggest aside, based heavily around a pulsing percussive beat yet minimalist in its vocal delivery. Many of the newcomers are sparse however, particularly in My Lighthouse, a part-duet that’s quiet, minor-key bitterness has the vibe of furious lost hope, lyrically placing that symbolic lighthouse in the heart of a violent storm at whispery volume. Grateful Song is a full on, heartbroken rock out melody with that familiar howling overlay of a track-closer. Judgement Call – another piece of bitter self-analysis – appears to be the album’s most abrupt, intense moment, with O’Brien screeching ”We don’t need to think for ourselves at all, I don’t need to proof the writing’s on the wall“.

Likeable as he is on stage, Conor’s musical output has always portrayed an air of intense loathing, directed both inwards and at the world around him. The Pact remains the closest Villagers come to a moment of real hopefulness; the dominant vibe still of a man looking at the world and seeing crisis after crisis, soaking up the darkness before delivering the most deliciously moving, entrancing pieces of symbolism that sum up the shadows. It’s dingy, it’s depressing, and it’s quite incredibly beautiful.

Of course, we can’t judge an album by one live run through, but these tracks captivate quickly. The blend of real rollercoaster emotion, wispy sparseness and – just occasionally – huge great rock-out crescendos is intensely promising. The two-track return then as a soloist in the encore is a magical glance at just how far Conor’s voice alone – even with occasional issues in the lower register tonight – can take things. As he closes with a soaring On A Sunlit Stage, a full on, drifting and glorious cherry on an epic layer cake, we’re already sure: the best is yet to come.

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