by / November 15th, 2012 /

Villagers – Dublin

Despite their time away from home, there is little doubt about the continuing popularity of Conor J O’Brien and his Villagers project – if the sold out throng in Whelan’s is anything to judge by at any rate. There is still a queue around the corner into Wexford Street at 9pm, and the venue is packed to the point of discomfort. Billed as a showcase for lots of new songs, the gig is in fact a judicious blend of the known and unknown. So we get Becoming A Jackal favourites like the title track, ‘Set the Tigers Free’, ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ and ‘The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)’, mixed with {Awayland} newbies ‘Grateful Song’, ‘Earthly Pleasure’, ‘Judgement Call’, the tricky time signature of ‘Rhythm Composer’ and the ultra-quiet ‘My Lighthouse’.

The diminutive lyricist and composer has always been a quirky writer and arranger, his baroque – even experimental – brand of folk-pop setting him aside from the standing army of sensitive singer-songwriters traversing the globe. At first impression, the new material seems even darker and more left-field than his debut, venturing into Kid A and onwards Radiohead electronica territory. Although someone who is professedly ‘terrified of bands’, he has been a member of a great one (The Immediate) and is now fronting another. It’s his falsetto-inclined warble that can fool one into thinking he’s just another predictable and prosaic Damien Rice or Glen Hansard or, to move beyond the confines of the hometown to the international stage, a Bon Iver. After all, Thom Yorke sports one of those falsetto-inclined warbles too, and he is never dismissed as a pitch-curdling folkie. In truth, O’Brien’s closest points of comparison are singular talents like Cat Power, Cass McCombs or Conor Oberst.

Not the most comfortable of nights for the audience then (next year’s Olympia show is far more fitting to their status) but a memorable one. Everything about this gig – musical and otherwise – simply enhances the experience. The attention to detail indicates the work of someone who cares, far beyond the call of duty in such a bijou venue. It all augurs well, not just for the impending album, but for the career of Villagers in the long run.