IT’S HARD TO find fault with Fossils, Aoife O’Donovan’s first solo album proper after stints in sophisticated country/roots bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why.
No, I hadn’t heard of them either, but regardless, Fossils is probably the perfect entry point, and its near-perfect exposition of a country/folk hybrid driven by superb songwriting, gorgeous singing and craftily skilled arrangements make for a divertingly diverse listening experience.
That singing: 30-year-old O’Donovan looks like a cute but gawky librarian, but her voice is like experiencing a soft summer wind carrying some inexplicably arousing fragrance on its wings. The first time I heard her sing, I wondered if the sweet tones and breathiness might make it one dimensional over the long haul, but instead, her intonation and delivery has the ability to wrap you around her little finger, and carry you through the narrative unscathed. And in the course of the 10-song album, it’s clear that what initially seems like a small, fragile beauty of a voice is, in fact, capable of some fire.
There are brief moments where I couldn’t help but think of Nora Jones, but really, that’s a lazy comparison, because O’Donovan’s songs bristle with a rigour that Jones has always found wanting, and both the songs and arrangements are much more ambitious.
What’s in the mix? Picked guitars, banjos, pedal steel, trumpets, melodicas. Primarily, it’s an acoustic setting, with the odd flourish of orchestral drama and the very occasional use of electric guitars. My only grumble about the sound is the way the bass is recorded: a double bass that tends to thump, having lost its innate woodiness.
Lyrically, these are not standard scenarios, and there are as many twists and turns in the music, with a few odd time signatures and unusually ornate surfaces more akin to folk-prog hybrids. Mostly, however, it’s simply a subtle, literate, intelligent and multi-textured country/folk singer-songwriter record that grabs its own moment in a scene hogtied by clones. GARY STEEL
Music = 4/5
Sound = 3.5/5