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Jennifer O'Connor
Over The Mountain, Across The Valley And Back To The Stars
Matador Records
www.jenniferoconnor.net


The well-worn cliché that an album "grows on you" crops up frequently in record reviews, but rarely have I found it as appropriate as I do after a couple of dozen listens to Jennifer O'Connor's stunning and subtle third full-length album, Over The Mountain, Across The Valley And Back To The Stars. O'Connor's poetry is plainspoken, her music is usually straightforward and at times rudimentary, and there is the occasional awkward lyric or bit of half-hearted songwriting. None of this matters, though, when the singularity of her vision reveals itself. Never insincere, never narcissistic, she draws you into the heartache and joy woven into a set of very beautiful, and very personal, songs. After repeated listens have revealed its warmth and complexity, I am humbled and excited to report that Over The Mountain, Across The Valley, And Back To The Stars is the rewarding and profound work of a skilled vocalist, musician, and songwriter.

O'Connor's eloquent and penetrating alto recalls Aimee Mann but adds a touch of punk-rock attitude befitting a Matador Records artist. Many of her songs are intimate and restrained, with spare musical accompaniment and disarming lyrics, but she is as comfortable with buoyant rock and roll as she is with coffeehouse folk. During the plaintive "Today," O'Connor sings softly over her hushed acoustic guitar. The lyrics are as spare as the music, with uncomplicated lines like "today I stop guessing and give you my heart." The melodic "Sister," while more upbeat musically, is just as reflective. It is another example of O'Connor expressing personal pain in a delicate way that evokes a listener's empathy: "And I've been thinking of your face / The last time that we embraced / It feeds me while I count stars / In the back of this subway car."

The album's most memorable track is "Bullshit Maze" - against a shuffling, hypnotic musical backdrop, she offers lyrics that are unusually perceptive and universal: "Once in a while, I stop / In this bullshit maze that I run / I look at my feet and then I look up at the sun / I wonder to myself if I'm having any fun / Then I run and start again." The opening track "Century Estates" is the record's most concise and well-written pop-rock song, complete with some of O'Connor's most imaginative lyrics: "God keeps us guessing, and I've been guessing hard / There's hardly a word to screw this hurt back into the stars." The swirling musical backdrop and insistent beat of "Complicated Rhyme" mark another highlight. Elsewhere, O'Connor offers primitive folk-punk on "Exeter, Rhode Island," and brings the album to a rousing close with the melodic, up-tempo "I'll Bring You Home." As distinct as the individual songs are, though, the album is focused and cohesive. O'Connor's skill in threading her unique artistic vision through all twelve tracks becomes clearer as the album reveals its nuances.

Anyone who appreciates delicate songwriting, evocative vocals, and skillfully made folk-rock records should seek out Over The Mountain, Across The Valley And Back To The Stars. The songs play like revealing self-portraits, brimming with compassion and honesty, and there is no elaborate production or unnecessary instrumentation. She lets her music and lyrics, aided by the natural richness of her voice, speak for themselves. The result is an album that separates itself from standard singer-songwriter fare as a captivating and fully realized folk-rock record.

-Dan Warren


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