On her way to heaven, LISA O’NEILL hit “a pothole in the sky.” And so it begins, a perfect way to start this tale, this journey, this album. Because all great things and all great art usually stem from a bump in the road, or a pothole in the sky.
This is Lisa O’Neill from Cavan’s third album, following a witty and charming debut (This Is An Album By Lisa O’Neill), and an altogether more cohesive follow-up (Same Cloth or Not) that marked her a serious artist, a contender, a voice, a forked tongue.
This one, however, is the recording Lisa O’Neill needed to make. It’s a recording of “the voice”. The Voice is everything for the folk singer – a conduit for the words, the emotion, the thought process. And if, like me, you ever felt a record needed to be made of an artist’s voice, about her voice, so beautifully focused on, centred on, honed-in on and in love with the voice, then this, friends, is the fucking record. Excuse my French.
David Odlum – the producer who calls the Loire Valley residential paradise that is Black Box Studio his home – has taken this notion literally and assisted O’Neill in making the record that needed to be made. This is apparent from the off, the opening track, the title-track, the first bump in the road. You hear that familiar Cavan sneer (in an odd, abstract way, Lisa has always reminded me of a folk John Lydon – go figure). It’s a foreboding, dangerous tale, and a song that builds with intensity. This is achieved by the utterly brilliant and stark accompaniment. The drones that underlay the voice seem to egg her on. The doomed dance of the double bass-line grows and growls. The piano trickles manically, spinning in circles like a possessed children’s toy. And that casual drawl starts to sound more like a cracked, wracked, wrought plea full of desperation and fear. And you realise that this is no ordinary record.
O’Neill’s voice goes to all sorts of places throughout the course of this album, and the music provided by Mossy Nolan, Emma Smith, Joseph Doyle and Seamus Fogarty follows her like a dark swirling storm, often bringing to mind the loose impressionism of the Dirty Three. On ‘’Planets’’ O’Neill delivers her most extraordinary vocal and lyrical performance to date. It is remarkable and on this form she could go toe to toe with Nick Cave at his most fire and brimstone. Except O’Neill’s prose is elemental and mysterious, not angry.
As any truly great singer knows, it’s not all about those big reaching numbers. There is some truly brave singing on this record. For instance, the odd high-pitched flourishes on ‘’Nasty’’, or the shrill parlour style singing on ‘’Black Sheep’’. The latter features some of the best accompaniment too, a mellifluous psychedelic montage that literally sets sail one-minute-thirty in as Lisa goes off on one of her patented hypnotic stream-of-conscious word-play trips. The album closes out on a succession of brilliant songs. ‘’The Banjo Spell’’ is a tender ode to the aural folk tradition without being throwback. In fact it has a big lush modern feel to it. And ‘’The Hunt’’, featuring guest fiddle and banjo from Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Glen Hansard respectively, is just another meandering epic Lisa O’Neill number, twisting and turning and changing its phrasing and tempo to suit the story and accommodate the words. She makes it sound easy. But it’s not.
I could say more but you probably get the idea. I just hope you give this record the time I gave it, the time it deserves. Listening to music isn’t as easy as it used to be. There’s so much of it now, and so much of it sounds the same. Our idea of modern folk music appears to dominated by drippy men with drippy beards trying to get laid. But this, well, this is the real shit, the truth, whatever that is.
~ Leagues O’Toole March 2016