Villagers + Courtney Barnett – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne (30/07/13)

It was a fairly subdued yet appreciative crowd that turned out to The Corner Hotel for Villagers’ Splendour in the Grass sideshow last night.

Support act Courtney Barnett did her best to warm the room with her everyday stories of life in Melbourne’s inner north, told over simple, reverb-heavy blues-folk structures. Her conversational lyrics and delivery certainly have a charm to them, and the slightly awkward-with-attitude air conveyed both vocally and through her muddy and distorted guitar tone helped make her set enjoyable.

With his diminutive stature, pale blue eyes and fresh-faced appearance, Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien could easily pass for nineteen rather than twenty-nine, but as soon as he, accompanied by keyboardist Cormac Curran, picked up his guitar and launched into ‘Memoir’, all anyone was concentrating on was his voice.

Arresting in both its delicate beauty and strength, O’Brien’s voice is the instrument around which Villagers’ sound is constructed and brought the already attentive audience to an appreciative silence.

This duo lineup of the band is the one that last visited Australia in 2010, upon the release of their debut album Becoming a Jackal. This time around the Dubliners were promoting their follow-up, 2013’s {Awayland}, a record which has divided critics due to its marked sonic departure from the stripped back arrangements of their debut, instead favouring a more layered production style.

The rest of the band joined the stage for {Awayland}’s opening track ‘My Lighthouse’, and the change in sound and volume was dramatic. James Byrne’s drums seemed to overwhelm the mix for the first few songs, and even when Tommy McLaughlin matched this with some fairly heavy guitar sounds the effect was largely that of a folk band playing rock.

Villagers’ obvious desire for a more ‘full’ band sound was not limited to the new material, with many of the arrangements from Becoming a Jackal being reworked with a greater use of dynamics, reverbs and electric guitar. This decision yielded mixed results as much of the previously delicate material, for example ‘Ship of Promises’ and Jackal highlight ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’, seemed to lose some of their emotional impact. The addition of these elements placed an emphasis on energy over repose, and as a rock band Villagers were unconvincing.

However, the poppier and less folk-singer oriented songs, such as ‘Home’ and ‘Nothing Arrived’ were well suited to this context and set highlights. The heavy, delay-washed guitar freakout of ‘The Waves’ was incredible, and an angry reading of ‘Judgement Call’, featuring the already sarcastic lyrics ‘I believe this land is my land/and you are not the same at all/cause the man in the sky has got my back’, justified all of those Bright Eyes comparisons.

Current single ‘Earthly Pleasures’ came off as almost a stylistic experiment, O’Brien’s recitation of the wordy track being much more spoken than on record, and was an uncomfortable moment in the set.

Returning for the encore by himself, O’Brien smiled and interacted with the crowd for the first time, delivering an ultra-fast rendition of the 19th century traditional tune ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, seemingly in acknowledgement of the amount of his countrymen present in the audience.

A solo version of ‘That Day’ once again quietened the room before the band returned and rounded out the set with a captivating take on ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’.

If anything this show highlighted that Villagers and Conor O’Brien are a talented group with a supremely gifted singer and songwriter who perhaps are still making choices about their sound. Not content to exist solely within the confines of fok-pop, this is a group aiming for a broader canvas, and although this worked better at some points then others, it nonetheless made for an interesting show.

Originally published on The AU Review on 01/08/2013. View original article.

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