Villagers – Borderline, London – 23 October 2012

Written for The Music Fix.

It’s two years since Dubliners Villagers made their first real impact, when their mostly acoustic debut album picked up a deserved Mercury Prize nomination. London’s Borderline is as good a spot as any to give an airing to tracks from an anticipated but as yet unheard album. Sitting in a basement some two minutes from the Centre Point skyscraper, its sheer heat when packed easily creates a buzz. Coming straight after a stint in large venues with Grizzly Bear, their headline show got underway with an appropriate intimacy.

Conor J O’Brien’s apparently unnoticed arrival on stage was more Open Mic Night than Triumphant Return, but his first few acoustic strums cut audience chatter down to silence, where it stayed for most of the show. ‘Set the Tigers Free’ kicked off a phase of familiar early material. Their style often brought to mind the likes of O’Brien’s namesake, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes; both have a hushed sensitivity which, though sometimes affected, tends to weave true stories.

After the opening gambit of known songs, the diversity of the band’s new material made a greater impact. Highly percussive current single ‘The Waves’ went further than any other, rising out of a Morse code-like mesh of electronic bleeps. Even better were ‘Earthly Pleasures’ – a song “about sitting naked on a toilet” whose speech-sung approach was reminiscent of M. Ward, or, going further back, the likes of Dylan – and ‘The Bell’. The latter was the greatest ensemble piece of the night; its parts included an introduction of a folky riff and gothic piano licks, melodic verses with hypnotic syncopated backing vocals, and a noisy climax punctuated by O’Brien’s powerful but intricate snare drum attacks. It sounds like Villagers’ second album, January’s Awayland, might be worth a listen.

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