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
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.
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