The fourth full-length release from Conor O’Brien’s Villagers pulls together material from the studio albums that came before, in an attempt to breathe new life into older tracks, in a new live context.
Hoping to capture the twelve tracks that make up ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ in their purest form - O’Brien opted to spend just one day at London’s RAK studios, with a strict ‘no more than two takes’ rule firmly in place. With the admission of this self-inflicted pressure and tight time constraints, you would expect a typical live album sound - instead it feels carefully crafted and thought-out, with stripped-back arrangements and sparsely used instruments. Opener ‘Set The Tigers Free’ – originally featured on Mercury-prize nominated debut ‘Becoming A Jackal – sets a more haunting tone than the original, as a gloomy organ whirls under O’Brien’s delicate vocal. Hints of harp, mellotron and analogue synth appear across the album, adding subtle colour, yet never distracting from the core of the songs.
The RAK version of 2013’s ‘The Waves’ is the biggest transformation; its tight electronic beats, keys, and harsh arpeggiated beeps are stripped away in favour of light drums, piano and reverb-drenched guitar. Yet, somehow, its build is greater than the ‘Awayland’ predecessor, as it breaks the seven-minute mark – ending with screeching organ as O’Brien howls of “approaching the shore” hold more energy than before. Saying goodbye with a cover of Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, O’Brien brings the record to an understated end.
While ‘Where Have You Been…?’ certainly showcases Villagers’ songwriting and impressive intimate side, it ultimately falls between two stools - not giving a true portrayal of a Villagers live show, and failing to mix-up tracks enough to justify this ‘re-imagining’ of older material. Saying that, die-hard fans who have followed O’Brien’s’ story from the very beginning, are sure to revel in the subtle changes and twists on Villagers best work to date.
Words: Tom Skinner
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