Aoife O’Donovan In the Magic Hour

The twin powers of the road and memory are powerful, beguiling forces for singer/songwriters. Aoife O’Donovan is no exception. In the Magic Hour
is her sophomore album. Written mostly during a solitary respite from
traveling, its intimate songs are haunted by the emotional resonance of
memory. The life and passage of her 93-year-old grandfather and her
childhood visits to his Clonakilty seaside village in Ireland loom large
over these recordings. Re-teaming with producer Tucker Martine,
the pair built these tunes from the barest of essentials — usually
just her voice and a guitar — before a studio band and carefully woven
contributions of collaborators (including Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile, Brooklyn Rider, Rob Burger, Eyvind Kang, and Tony Furtado)
were added. Employing standard folk-rock instrumentation, the words in
“Stanley Park” could be a closing song rather than an album opener:
“…If I could take my rest/Back in the belly from where I came/nobody
knows my name…” Burger‘s
piano highlights the lilting melody on the horizon of her poignant
lyrics but never gets maudlin. The title track is brighter, framed in an
arrangement that approaches Baroque pop. Pump organ, Wurlitzer, Watkins‘ fiddle, crisp snare, and reverbed electric guitars bump under O’Donovan‘s
in the rear view lyrics. “Donal Óg” commences with long, modal, droning
electric guitars, its undercurrent of Celtic melody is sad and wistful
in a narrative that’s equally painful and affirmative. The voice of her
grandfather wafts in from the margins in its closing moments,
underscoring its poignancy. Gabriel Kahane arranges the strings for Brooklyn Rider
on “The King of All Birds,” a minor-key, acoustic-electric rocker with
winds and brass patched into its final frames to add texture and
harmonic imagination. Furtado‘s banjo, Watkins‘, fiddle, and Laura Veirs‘ backing vocal adorn the shimmering, heartbroken waltz “Not the Leaving.” It’s answered by “Detour Sign,” in which O’Donovan‘s
protagonist blows up a relationship, deciding love is not enough in
facing of her life challenges. Amid the meld of guitars, the Wurlitzer
erects the tune’s spine; it buoys the words — which admit regret even
as they decide a course of action — as well as the rest of the
instrumentation. Closer “Jupiter” contains words that almost contradict
it. Amid bittersweet memory, temporal displacement, and the tension of
greeting an uncertain future, the protagonist concludes in the resolve
that love triumphs. The vanguard folk-cum-art song music is bracing, led
by the strings of Brooklyn Rider. In the Magic Hour lives up to its title. O’Donovan‘s
sometimes searing, always poetically rendered lyrics are matched by
astute, economically articulated melodies. These songs leave listeners
with the impression that they actively chose to grant emotions and
memory places as proper collaborators here. O’Donovan
seems certain that as she allows them voice, the trails they carve in
the heart become as priceless as what they teach.

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