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Aoife O'Donovan: Age of Apathy
by George Graham
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/26/2022)
A generation after the New Acoustic movement took the music in new eclectic, non-traditional directions, the contemporary folk and bluegrass scene has blossomed embodying elements of the singer-songwriter genre, acoustic instrumentation and an eclectic mix of styles. One of the performers who epitomizes this musical amalgam is Aoife O’Donovan, who has just released her third full album called Age of Apathy.
Aoife O’Donovan first began attracting attention from acoustic music fans though her work with the New England based group Crooked Still, who combined original music with creative arrangements of traditional songs and pop material in an acoustic setting that would often include a cello and other less folky instruments. She collaborated with two other eclectic acoustic women, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins in a series of public radio performances on Prairie Home Companion and Live from Here with Chris Thile, and that led to the formation of the trio I’m With Her, which we also featured on this review series. Ms. O’Donovan’s collaborations also included appearing on the Goat Rodeo sessions albums with Thile, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Ms. O’Donovan’s solo output has been been less frequent, saying that she enjoyed the performing and collaborations more than writing. After an EP in 2020, now she is out with the full length Age of Apathy.
The album was inspired in part by changed life circumstances – after living in New York, she decided to move with her husband and young daughter to Florida in September 2020, where he was conductor for the Orlando Philharmonic. The pandemic lockdown also took her off the road, and the change in scenery and a chance to work at a leisurely pace in a studio at Full Sail University, where a friend was an instructor in recording engineering, gave her a chance and the inspiration for more songs. Some were begun in New York, one had been around for eight years, but most were from a burst of writing she did in her new digs. The pandemic being what it was, the album was filled out remotely, with Ms. O’Donovan bringing in producer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Henry to add his parts and artistic input from his headquarters in Maine. Drummer Jay Bellarose and bassist David Piltch were also brought in, along with vocalists Madison Cunningham and Allison Russell to provide harmonies, and Joe Henry’s son Levon providing some woodwinds. Ms. O’Donovan provided a variety of instruments, some she described as experimentation, but Joe Henry incorporated them into the project.
The result is Ms. O’Donovan’s most musically diverse recording yet, with some electric instrumentation and some interesting sonic treatments. It’s hardly bluegrass, but one can hear a kind of undercurrent of the genre occasionally peeking through. Her compositions tend to be musically twisty with complicated structures and often interesting rhythmic approaches. Her lyrics are often philosophical, asking questions about life’s circumstances. And there’s always her angelic vocals.
Opening is Sister Starling with the bird as a kind of metaphor for the stages of life. The track features the creative combination of folk and an atmospheric quality. <<>>
A track called B61 grew out of her time in New York and what she missed in the during the lockdown. <<>>
The song Phoenix uses the legend the bird who rises from its own ashes, to celebrate what Ms O’Donovan says was the return of her muse, in her new environment. It’s a more upbeat and a bit more electric. <<>>
The title track Age of Apathy considers what she describes as the effect on her generation of Sept. 11, 2001, and ponders her life before and after. <<>>
Ms. O’Donovan’s folk and bluegrass roots come through on the arrangement on the song Prodigal Daughter which features Allison Russell as the guest backing vocalist. <<>>
On the other hand, Town of Mercy takes the form of a piano ballad, but with a number of interesting touches. The lyrics were written by Levon Henry. I think it’s one of the highlights of the album. <<>>
Another of more intriguing tracks, both musically and lyrically, is Elevator. It’s further instance of considering life’s circumstances done in an eclectic, sometimes vaguely unsettling arrangement. <<>>
A song which sums up the lyrical direction of the album is What Do You Want from Yourself. It’s another great combination of astute words with an imaginative musical setting. <<>>
Aoife O’Donovan’s new album Age of Apathy is a gem. She is one of those gifted vocalists who could figuratively sing the phone book and it would be wonderful. As it is, in a new environment and with time off the road during the pandemic, she applied herself to writing a bunch of new material, which is some of her best yet. Producer Joe Henry helped shape the album’s sound into a fascinating blend of folk and ambiance. The arrangements are creative and Ms. O’Donovan’s vocals are typically radiant.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The mix is well done and creates a nice atmospheric sound around the parts that were recorded separately in Florida and Maine, and perhaps elsewhere. But the dynamic range is disappointing, with volume compression squashing the difference between loud and soft, as is so often the case.
What I suppose could be called the “post New Acoustic” scene of the 21st Century has given us some outstanding performers. Aoife O’Donovan is a paragon among them, and her new album makes that abundantly clear.
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