Villagers, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

On a permanently purple-tinged stage, Villagers create a show of rich contrast.

Their engaging brand of neo-folk, even in its most optimistic moments, always carries a growing unease, whether through personal and often poignant lyrics or through the introduction of throbbing guitar lines. These conflicts are part of what make Villagers such a unique act, and tonight their show reminds us that the shadows which creep through their music can be spellbinding.

The frontman, Conor J O'Brien, trademark acoustic guitar in hand and plaintive vocals on top form, begins proceedings with a four-song acoustic performance, climaxing with the gorgeous "Pieces", in which a lilting, lonesome refrain showcases O'Brien's tender vocal style and lyrical gift. The diminutive singer barely speaks ("You're nice, but weird," we are informed, in a rare moment of conversation), but in such an intimate venue, the words he puts through his microphone more than make up for his lack of patter. His delivery is earnest and refreshingly sincere.

Once the rest of the Irish five-piece emerge to perform the excellent "The Meaning of the Ritual", a more expansive and ambient sound reveals itself, complementing the sound with which O'Brien and his guitar began. The dreamlike "Home" and atmospheric "I Saw the Dead" also take full advantage of this wider musical scope, adding haunting keyboard lines to unsettling but beguiling effect.

Among this impressive batch it is the Ivor Novello award-winning "Becoming a Jackal" which stands out. It is truly the finest combination of Villagers' two central strands: intimate baroque folk and punchy rock. The song's pounding, melodic finale is the highlight of the show.

Yet the show is also a little frustrating: these two styles feel too disparate. O'Brien returns for the encore, playing acoustic tracks again, then the band enter for the show's final throes. Both halves of the gig are thoroughly enjoyable, but the jolt between them is jarring and it leads to confusion about whether this is an acoustic show featuring a band, or vice versa.

Still, O'Brien's band have created two superb, distinctive sounds in one album and less than a year in the spotlight. If they can further enmesh the brilliant halves on show tonight into a cohesive whole, great things surely await.