It takes a lot of nerve to imagine you can sing a song better than - or, at least, as well as - Alison Krauss. Let's just start there.
Granted, Aoife O'Donovan wrote "Lay My Burden Down", the song Krauss included on her last Grammy-nominated album with Union Station, Paper Airplane. But Krauss has become famous precisely because she is able to immediately hone in on the essence of a song and sing straight at it. From "The Lucky One" to "Down to the River to Pray", once she's touched a song, that's pretty much the best way it can be sung. Maybe I'm too giant an Alison Krauss fan, then again. Maybe I'm giving her too much credit.
But, O'Donovan not only reclaimed the song she sold to Krauss; she turned it up on its head, added some "I Walk the Line" guitar tones in the background, a little choral action, and her weirdly timid-and-strong-all-at-once vocals. Then she set it down smack at the beginning of her full-length solo debut.
She had little reason to hesitate, of course. As a graduate of the New England Conservatory and with about a decade as frontwoman for the immensely creative Crooked Still, O'Donovan is no stranger to imaginative arrangements and the masterful interpretation of a song. She's also no stranger to songwriting. When Crooked Still broke up, part of the announcement included O'Donovan's intention to explore the singer-songwriter thing a little more.
She headed out to Portland, Ore., and teamed up with producer Tucker Martine. Here's where I throw some love to the producer. I'm not enough of a music industry wonk to follow many producers very closely, but I don't think Tucker Martine has ever touched many projects I didn't think were fantastic. (My issue with the Decemberists' The King Is Dead notwithstanding - that was more about the songwriting than the production.) His gift is very similar to Buddy Miller's minimalism. If there's only one place for that guitar tone to appear in the song, he'll get it in there and out of there, no need to hang around clogging up the sonic space just to be showcased once. There might be times where this album feels like an amalgam of soundscapes piled atop one another, but if you tune in closely, there's not a whole lot actually going on. It's just that what's happening is happening really well.
Take "Beekeeper" for example. It starts with a little dark, far-off, mysterious piano. Then comes the acoustic guitar and a very sparse note here and there from an electric guitar. O'Donovan's voice comes in with its intrinsic wistfulness. Her lyrics - and the way she pronounces them - handle the rhythm. Then the acoustic piano gives way to a synthesized one. Drums come in, holding down a solid walking rhythm. It feels like a lot of syncopation is going on, but that's the words, not any instrument. After the chorus come the violins, but just for a breath. Now the vibe is built up, but we're still dealing with the same instruments that were there before. One more note from the violin takes us into another verse. And so on. All these elements weave in and out of each other like a bee dancing and buzzing along against the wind. Probably the most notable thing about this song is that, where a rhythm section break might otherwise go, Aoife delivers that same idea using just her voice and the drums. It's a straight-up jazz maneuver - a skat with a storyline - that falls over into some ass-kicking electric guitar solos, turned into languid waves by an occasional violin bow. One could spend hours trying to figure out how they even imagineered this stuff, but why bother? Chances are it was as much painstaking perfectionism as it was freakish instinct and just good songwriting.
The nice thing about this way of layering and arranging a song is that the same thing can be achieved without electric guitar, fiddle, and piano. Here, they pull of the exact same thing live, without any holes, with just O'Donovan's well-strummed minor chords and a very talented rhythm section. In other words, the production goes a long way for the listening experience of the album, but the strength is really in the songwriting itself:
Holding this up against your typical run of the mill singer-songwriter would be kind of comical. Look at these songs from any angle and there's a magical world happening within them. Whether you want to just sit back and enjoy music that sounds nice, or whether you want to geek out about what's happening on the speakers, there is plenty here to satisfy.
The title, Fossils, is interesting, meanwhile. It implies something old and strong, a found object with many interpretations. I don't know whether this is a hat-tip to the various traditional musical styles from which she draws, and the many creative ways she interprets them, or if it's just a lyric she nabbed from one of the songs, that sounded like a good thing to call a record. Nonetheless, there are pieces of folk, jazz, rockabilly, and gospel on this record, woven together with various omni-genre elements that I believe will one day be referred to as something like "millennial folk elements" (a dark, mysterious vibe; lush simplicity; largely acoustic instruments, often used in a non-traditional way; etc). Whatever the intention of the title, to whatever extent you want to geek out about the way these songs happen, the music is just damn good. There's plenty to over-analyze, but the bottom line is it all works well together. It's emotional and stirring, it sticks with you, it's weirdly catchy despite the fact that O'Donovan seeems to have an aversion to choruses. How does she do that? Who cares. It's just good, and it's easily one of the finest reocrds of the year.
As the year draws to a close, I'll be writing close-up profiles of my picks for the Top 10 Best Albums of 2013. These will not be presented in the order they fall in my list. They are simply intended to underscore exactly why I believe these albums were the finest of the year. My final tally of the Best Albums of 2013 will be posted the last week of the year.