Aoife O’Donovan: In The Magic Hour

O’Donovan pushes her genre’s often confining envelope into brave, exciting territory.

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Aoife O’Donovan
In The Magic Hour
(Yep Roc)
Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars

You don’t have to be a traveling musician to understand that life on the endless highway can be a lonely, isolating and often mind-numbing experience. But those feelings are also the very essence of some classic albums, written and/or conceived on the road. Both Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty were forged by their uneasy relationship to that existence and now American folk singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan uses her own restless roving to create her sophomore solo release.

Written during a stint of solitude after her grandfather’s death — his ghostly voice appears in the soft, atmospheric “Donal Og” – the poignant, evocative lyrics were then finely crafted on her downtime during touring. Still, these songs were never played live before she reconvened with last album’s producer Tucker Martine, who again helped mold the final product. Not surprisingly, the concept of moving and being transient appears often, even in titles such as “Detour Sign, “The King of all Birds” and “Not the Leaving.”

The soft beating of tom-toms mimics the beating of gull’s wings in the opening “Stanley Park,” softly yet urgently pushing O’Donovan’s hushed vocals over atmospheric backing. The feeling of flying/drifting/hovering ties all ten tracks together along with the singer’s soft but edgy and never easygoing approach. These songs take a few spins to sink in and listening with headphones helps isolate the subtle overdubbing of strings and hints of electric guitar that create the enticing vibe. In that sense, it is a combination of Mitchell in her jazz-influenced period and Emmylou Harris’ Daniel Lanois helmed Wrecking Ball as O’Donovan weaves her elegant words like a tapestry between moaning fiddles, brushed drums, whispered mandolins and barely there keyboards.

It’s a haunting, generally melancholy 40 minutes that cries out for repeated playings to best capture the fleeting melodies, atmospheric performances and the singer’s delicate concepts. The mood shifts from the tensile, gently finger picked “Porch Light” occasionally spilling over into experimental as in the closing “Jupiter” with its non-traditional floating voice/acoustic guitar/drums. The sound emerges from the introspection that death and seclusion bring, yet the results are loose and freeing. They show Aoife O’Donovan unafraid to push her genre’s often confining envelope into brave, exciting and fresh territory.

This review has been amended from its original version.