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Villagers: Where Have You Been All My Life?

Villagers: Where Have You Been All My Life?

The songs themselves are by no means live recreations of the original album versions but reinterpretations of songs old and new.

Villagers: Where Have You Been All My Life?

4 / 5

Live albums generally come in two forms: a live concert album, or a live, possibly acoustic, session that pares down an artist’s sound. Both have the potential to capture the artist’s raw talents, free from post-recording studio engineering. Villagers—the moniker for Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien—follows the latter approach to the live album with Where Have You Been All My Life?. Recorded over the course of one day at London’s RAK Studios, all 12 songs—handpicked from Villagers’ three LPs—were recorded in one or two takes with a four piece band for accompaniment. The songs themselves are by no means live recreations of the original album versions but reinterpretations of songs old and new. The final product is an album all its own, distilling O’Brien’s music into its purest form to date.

The slight Irishman with his even slighter parlor guitar has always had an air of gentle wisdom. But his albums are much more than a series of delicate folk ballads. For one thing, each of them has marked a stylistic shift in O’Brien’s songwriting, familiar enough to be unquestionably a Villagers album yet experimental enough to be a total surprise. Becoming a Jackal was his most straightforward troubadour folk. But {Awayland} introduced a more digital Villagers that toyed with percussion and bass lines that overwhelmed the arrangements. 2015’s Darling Arithmetic reversed all of that and offered up the most restrained version of Villagers and packed all of its punches in O’Brien’s astute lyricism. Interpreting and doing justice to these distinct sonic phases with a somewhat limited collection of instruments (drums for whatever reason are unobtrusive, verging on absent for much of Where Have You Been All My Life?), not to mention the inherent constraints of performing live, poses some challenges.

Case in point, opener “Set the Tigers Free” and “The Waves” are virtually unrecognizable. On “Set the Tigers Free,” the original peppy mix of jangly guitar and woodblock percussion are translated into much slower, melodic finger plucking and light brush patterns on a snare drum. Even O’Brien’s delivery is altered from choppy to smooth, overly emotional and harmony-laden. The intent here, however, seems to be more an effort to bring his earliest work into the context of his current sound. But “The Waves” might as well be a completely different song—and a great one, at that. What was once a blippy synthesizer intro accented by muted guitar plucking is reworked into a folk riff and accompanied by ominous atmospherics. This intro is also extended so that the five-minute original track becomes a seven-minute live performance.

Although songs from all of Villagers’ previous albums are featured, last year’s Darling Arithmetic still dominates. The autobiographical “Courage” and “Hot Scary Summer” are included, as is “Darling Arithmetic,” “The Soul Serene,” “Everything I Am Is Yours” and “So Naive. ” While all 12 tracks seem to be interpreted through the sonic lens of Darling Arithmetic, these six tracks show signs of tweaking as well. “Hot Scary Summer” adds an atmospheric drone of light synths and is much more piano-heavy than the original version. O’Brien’s guitar doesn’t even take the forefront until the first chorus. “Everything I Am Is Yours,” honestly sounds more raw on Darling Arithmetic than here in-studio, where it takes on a rehearsed crispness. “Darling Arithmetic” and “So Naive” are closer to the album takes, with O’Brien’s sparse vocal and plucked guitar carrying the sorrowful love songs. The only noticeable changes seem to be the lack of percussion on “Darling Arithmetic” and the ingenious addition of the flugelhorn on “So Naive.”

For its unadorned sparseness and lack of additional polish, Where Have You Been All My Life? could be criticized for adhering to Darling Arithmetic‘s particular brand of ethereal, minimalist melancholy instead of returning to Villagers’ earlier enthusiasm. What truly connects these tracks is their muted nature, which in the context of Villagers’ catalog should never be confused as being emotionally stunted. Rather, O’Brien’s sonic restraint only teases out the emotional weight of his delicate lyrics. This RAK session manages to capture an inexplicable gulf of emotion, the sensation that O’Brien is performing in a vacuum where each emotional turn resonates back on itself. It’s the polar opposite of what could or should be expected from a traditional live album, but turns out to be the best showcase of O’Brien’s music.

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