From the archive: Villagers – Village Underground, London 20/02/13

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FIRST PUBLISHED ON 4 MARCH 2013 IN THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Eclectic, psychedelic and stylish, Stealing Sheep’s choice of costume acts as a decent harbinger for their performance at The Village Underground. The all girl three-piece pack more ideas into a single song than many would hazard to fit on a full album. The results are intriguing. Fragments of Talking Heads and Warpaint glisten on the surface, but buried within the art-house jauntiness and tribal groove is a Spector-esque core. On record, Stealing Sheep have been accused of lacking cohesion. Tonight, though, they’re all unpredictability and caprice: a joy to behold.

Villagers are a completely different proposition. Band leader and songwriter Conor O’Brien has etched out two album loads of meticulous gems. He’s cut from same classic songwriting cloth as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But there’s a dark trimming to his fabric and an insulation that gives him an air of detachment on stage.

Tonight, as ever, his demeanour is impersonal but captivating – he says very little and yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. His band is a well-oiled machine, giving note-perfect renditions of the bulk of his near-perfect back catalogue. New album {Awayland} has the same stealthy emotional penetration as its predecessor Becoming A Jackal – played live though, the new songs come across with real pizzazz. ‘Earthly Pleasures’, perhaps O’Brien’s lyrical zenith to date, is – and I don’t use this word lightly – epic.

There’s something slightly iconoclastic about O’Brien’s willingness to slay a song at an unlikely point and take things off-road. On ‘The Bell’ and particularly the spectacular encore rendition of ‘The Waves’, Villagers challenge the ‘folk’, or ‘indie-folk’ labels with which they’re often laden with, descending into a lengthy jam on the former, while exploring more electronic territory on the latter.

His craftsmanship really shines through on some of the tracks from Becoming a Jackal. ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’, with which he opens the show, is spellbinding. The title track, for which he won an Ivor Novello, suggests that despite dishing out gongs to Ed Sheeran and Adele over the past year, the award’s panel still have some idea as to what constitutes talent. But it’s the erstwhile stonking ‘That Day’, reimagined as a jazzy, acoustic number that steals the show.

Fans of Chad Harbach’s life-affirming novel The Art of Fielding from last year might appreciate the resemblance with Henry “the Skrim” Skrimshander – the precocious college pitcher who eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. It’s easy to imagine the boyish O’Brien giving himself up so completely to his art, too. His songs are rich in lyrical twists, his vocals delivered with perfect enunciation – clipped consonants and rolling vowels. And watching him play, you often get the impression that he couldn’t care less whether he was playing for ten or 10,000 people.

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