J.S. Ondara: Tales Of America

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J.S. Ondara
Tales Of America
(Verve)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Haunting.

That’ll be your first — and last — impression when hearing singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara’s fragile yet agile tenor voice.

Ondara’s arresting debut results from one of Americana’s more unlikely backstories. The Kenyan native arrived in Minneapolis (the early stomping grounds of his idol Bob Dylan) in 2013 with a rudimentary grasp of both English and playing guitar, little money and no professional connections. What he could do is write songs, a skill he further developed playing live in the Minneapolis area.

As the album’s title and closing track “God Bless America” (not the Irving Berlin standard) implies, Ondara is infatuated with the U.S., but not always in an optimistic sense. That concept subtly threads through these eleven acoustic songs, even when he’s singing about broken relationships (“Television Girl,” “Saying Goodbye,” “Good Question,” “Give Me A Moment”) with a sweet yet melancholy and reflective tone. Not surprisingly, there’s a strong early Dylan feel to much of this, like the stripped- down folk of “Master O’Connor,” with the disturbing lyrics of “This love of mine, she is so unkind/ She said I was made for her leash.” Producer Mike Viola adds minimalist accompaniment on about half the tracks. The most striking aspect of his influence is in the dissonant strings that appear for only a few seconds to underscore the lyrics of “Days Of Insanity.”

But it’s Ondara’s stark, boyish vocals and beautifully nuanced delivery that is so mesmerizing. A few songs are just acoustic guitar and voice, so kudos to Viola for keeping the music free of much embellishment, which only distracts from the singer’s voice. When he sings on “Give Me A Moment,” “Oh, would you give me a moment … to break my heart/ go on tear it apart” with sparse cello accompaniment and ghostly backing vocals, the effect is electrifying. The skeletal drums in “Saying Goodbye” and its memorable chorus make it a natural for crossover potential. And when Ondara breaks down to a naked a cappella on the riveting “Turkish Bandana,” you’ll be calling your friends to demand they hear this iridescent young talent.

Perhaps his unlikely career path exemplifies the “American Dream.” But the lyrics are darker, more questioning about the American experience and the difficulties the country faces on “There’s no catching a breath/ There’s no rest till you’re dead.” It’s that sense of searching combined with Ondara’s spellbinding and, well, haunting voice that makes this an early contender for one of the finest and most moving Americana albums of the year.

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