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Conor O'Brien's Villagers reconcile with his inner 'Jackal'

October 20, 2010 |  8:00 am

Villagers_homeshot_20100430_164904 The best song on Conor O’Brien’s debut album as Villagers, “Becoming a Jackal,” is about a bus breaking down. Not in any dramatic fashion, just a typical sputtering out that leaves the Dubliner among a few dozen passengers stranded on an Irish roadside. That crew makes up the cast of "Twenty-Seven Strangers," a quiet acoustic rumination on loneliness, death and the gnawing need for love.

“I don’t drive at home, so I’m always taking buses, and I really wanted to write a song about this mundane thing and see where it went,” O’Brien said. “I want my songs to discuss things that aren’t really said between people, and when you put that in an everyday setting, it shows that everyone has a universe inside their head.”

The rest of the world of Villagers, which play the Music Box tonight, is a bit more intense. The album’s rooted in simple tools -– O’Brien’s vibrato-stricken vocals and sprawling, lyric-centric songwriting; loosely wound guitar strums and homespun orchestral complements. But it adds up to one of the most interesting and singular visions for the genre since, well, the last inky-haired Conor O. of Irish lineage to self-lacerate over dark-eyed indie folk.

The emotional world of “Jackal” is strewn with death and doubt -– of his own sincerity as a lover and artist; of romance as predation; of fever dreams and suicide. But there’s not a histrionic note to be found here; the arrangements are sparkling and low key, and O’Brien’s voice rarely rises to more than a seething quiver. In fact, the most powerful moments are often the quietest -– a dynamic skill that he deploys with gleeful precision at a Villagers show, like at a recent impromptu Hollywood solo set where he rendered the celeb-dripping patio at Bardot into stunned silence.

“Jackal” is a brutally personal album, one whose ire is most often directed at O’Brien himself. Take  "The Meaning of the Ritual,” in which he pleads with a lover for their deep affection, yet admits he’s being manipulative and appetite-driven in the next breath. Like most people, it’s a song made up of a lot of different, contradictory things all at once.

“A song like ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ is a love song, but it doesn’t put love an a pedestal,” O’Brien said. “It’s animalistic and all a part of our same impulses. These songs are more about creating empathy with that than expressing an opinion on it.”

Given the trademark quaver of O’Brien’s lip under his dark bangs at the big payoffs in cathartic songs such as  “Pieces,” he’s had no trouble finding empathy among young and love-ravaged fans. “Jackal” became an unlikely chart-topper in Ireland after its June release on Domino, and it earned him a Mercury Prize nomination in the U.K. But his 2010 has also been fraught with real tragedy –- the week of his album release, his older sister Aoife passed away, leaving a deep emotional scar across a young artist already grappling with mortality in song.

O’Brien hints that his writing is, in turn, drawing from a different and more optimistic emotional well now, exploring ethnic folk music from other countries and the power pop of Elvis Costello. “This album was all about death, and now I want to write about birth, with big choirs, something very new-sounding,” he said.  But he still wants to keep his gaze fixed on the mundane, sad, story-fraught world in front of him. 

“I was in Spain a while ago and became obsessed with flamenco music,” he said. “Those songs are all about being uprooted, and I grew up in this really safe, suburban part of Dublin where I was looking for drama. Every flamenco song had that sense of melodrama, but when the singers play they always look you right in the eyes.”

-- August Brown

Villagers play the Music Box with Ra Ra Riot tonight at 8 p.m. 6216 Hollywood Blvd. $22.50. www.themusicbox.la. Photo by Rich Gilligan

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