Villagers, Borderline, London


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The Independent Culture

The superstitious may be dreading next year, but for Dubliner Conor O’Brien and band, 2013 is already shaping up rather nicely.

Sandwiched between their hectic schedule as support for Brooklyn indie-rockers Grizzly Bear’s on their recent tour, O’Brien and his four friends – collectively known as Villagers – are at the tiny Borderline venue to showcase tracks from their new album {Awayland}, due out in January.

As if the standard expectations around second albums weren’t enough, there is plenty of added pressure for O’Brien, seeing as his first full-length offering – 2010’s Becoming a Jackal – earned a Mercury Prize nomination and the title track won the coveted Ivor Novello award for best song. However, as tonight progresses, it is clear that {Awayland} will also be a very special album indeed.

“We’ve been playing a lot of big rooms with Grizzly Bear... I feel like we’re hallucinating tonight – you’re all a bit big,” O’Brien says glancing at the fans standing at his feet.

Breaking the crowd into his new sound gently, O’Brien begins with first album tracks "Home", "Set The Tigers Free" and "The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)" which are now performed far more as a collective than was the case in years past – as are tracks from the new album.

Certainly O’Brien – who, according to Pitchfork, once admitted he is “terrified of bands” – is still the poet, the focal point, the wide-eyed acoustic guitar-strumming storyteller who weaves his perfectly pitched and sharply enunciated lyrics through a lattice of more traditional folk influences (lighthouses, boats and the sea are thematic staples), modern day philosophical quandaries, and crystalline expressions of the classic never-ending human motifs - faith, love and mortality.

But as the set moves onto new material, "Grateful Song" and "Passing a Message" being the first to meet with loud approval from the packed crowd – a noticeable change from the silent awe that has greeted the band for most of the night (“You’re all very quiet,” O’Brien says at one point, “it scares us”) - the band is, as it has been all night, firmly in the foreground, especially through the bassline groove and deliberately jarred keys of the latter track.

Moving onto the tantalising intro of "The Bell", O’Brien is thankfully forced to stop proceedings after breaking a string – thankfully because the performance had been creeping far too close to perfection for human comfort.

With a new guitar in hand, "The Bell" – along with innovative, electric, cacophonically-finished new single "The Waves" and the Hunter S Thompson-esque cinematics of "Earthly Pleasure" – proves to be one of the album’s most striking, hallucinogenic, almost psychedelic offerings.

They are a triumph, not least because of the trance-like passion with which O’Brien performs them – eyes-closed, sweat dripping off his brow, every muscle clenched with intent – which even manages to make his rendition of "Becoming a Jackal" look tamer (but by no means tame).

“Thank you,” O’Brien says with that same earnestness that infuses every lyric as the five-piece step off the stage to rapturous cheers.

“No, thank you,” come replies from the crowd.