Album Reviews

Tara Jane O’Neil – Where Shine New Lights

(Kranky) UK release date: 27 January 2014

Tara Jane O'Neil - Where Shine New LightsAlthough it’s been five years since Tara Jane O’Neil’s last proper album, 2009’s A Ways Away, it’s not as if she’s been off the radar. There’s been her single on K Records Sirena and the collaborative album with Nikaido Kazumi reminding us of her presence, along with various live performances and soundtrack work. Yet, something about O’Neil remains ethereal almost beyond reach, and it’s a quality that applies to her music and to Where Shine New Lights in particular. This is an album that practically defines the term “dreamlike”.

Welcome is a sung, but wordless introduction. Relying on gently layered tones of voice, it’s like a lullaby, providing a brief gateway to the hazy, but endlessly comfortable Land of Nod. Once there, Wordless In Woods takes over, continuing the hypnotic feel that hangs over the album. O’Neil’s voice is gentle and delicate, floating in space as it combines with a basic strummed guitar line and gentle thrums of feedback and cotton wool ambience. It’s pitched somewhere between The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows and the Velvet Underground‘s Sunday Morning except, this being a somewhat dreamlike experience, there are only ever brief glimpses of the similarities, before they disappear into the swirling ether. This Morning Glory is still in dreamy territory, but is a little more straightforward. Its gorgeous folk/pop melodies are not exactly obscured by clouds, but there’s still a distinct night time ambience (part lullaby, part love song) to it despite its title.

At this point, things take a distinct shift in tone. O’Neil continues with the dream state feel but moves towards something more unsettling. Over. Round, In A Room. Found. pulses with heartbeat percussion and unsettles with washes of wispy vocal harmonies and vague hints of feedback creeping in and out of the mix. There’s something vaguely threatening about it, sounding like a sonic panic attack, experienced in the moment before waking. The bass pulse and incessant hum (which might be someone playing the rim of a glass) that provides the bare bones of Glow Now continues the vaguely threatening feel established by Over. Round. In.A Room. Found. but rather than the menace being just beyond comprehension, it’s a forceful presence here.

The Lull The Going returns to the delicate folk of The Morning Glory and it’s here that O’Neil’s voice attains a kind of ghostly, spiritual presence. It floats, treated with a little reverb, amongst the guitar lines with spectral elegance. It really is quite something. However, Elemental Finding pushes the limits a little further. Once again using traditional folk song and instrumentation as starting points, then adding oppressive bass drones and delicate electronics, it just takes O’Neil’s lyrics about walking through fire, and how “you will never be my companion” to ratchet up the emotional quotient. It is on this particular song that she gets closest to the confusing netherworlds explored by David Lynch, which is high praise indeed.

Delving deep into simplistic, but hypnotic folk, The Signal, Wind and The Signal, Lift are variations on a theme. Both songs are fully immersive if apparently desolate. Caverns of sound echo to simplistic harmonies and swells, while O’Neil’s voice occasionally breaks through. At times she’s barely audible, apparently lost in the layers of sound, possibly not even there. There’s something ghostly about her presence in these two songs, but it’s a beautiful presence rather than an unsettling one.

Closing the album are the more ambient tones of Bellow Below As Above, which serves as a kind of low key swirling drone before leading in to the plaintive guitar and vocal cry of New Lights For A Sky, a song so simplistic that it stretches out a single idea to the point where it boarders on annoying, then somehow becomes oddly affecting.

Simplistic yet perfectly arranged, these songs are quite wonderful and open the way into a dreamworld that is familiar, strange, welcoming and every so often, quite terrifying. That Tara Jane O’Neil has managed to stir such emotions with such basic instrumentation and simplistic ideas only serves to highlight what an instinctive artist she is. Hopefully it won’t be another five year wait for her next proper album. For now, this will help us dream.

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