Sometimes i put off writing reviews because i am lazy, and sometimes because, as i listen to a record my opinion of it changes, and i take time to look at it from different angles. When i first listened to Surface Noise by Jennifer O'Connor, i thought, "Ah, another female singer-songwriter" (my promo inbox is crammed full of singer-songwriters, female and otherwise) "but she has a decent enough voice..." And so, since i did not hate it on first listen, it lingered on my phone.
And, over the months, songs would surface in random play, and i would think, "Oh, that's nice, who is it?" And several times it was Jennifer O'Connor. But it was never folk-rock, which is what i first mentally classified this record as.
After a few similar occurrences, i decided to make the effort to sit and listen to the record again and give it another pass or two.
And of course, that is when i got lazy, and busy.
Over the past couple of months i have listened to Surface Noise many times, and i have some to the realization that it is a complex, rich pop record with a lot of depth to it. She is not reinventing the wheel and instead is using a tried and true musical formula. But she does a lot with it and there is a lot to enjoy here.
The kicks off with a taped drum, some chugging keyboards, her singing along. It's catchy, yet mellow. On the chorus Mountains pops into a lovely pop tune, her guitar sparkling. In a way, this reminds me of the early 1990s work of Suzanne Vega: there is a faint synth feel to the songs, and her voice is hushed, conversational, lovely.
O'Connor gets her jangle on with Start Right Here, in which her voice warbles over a strummed guitar and driving drum beat. She slows it down further for Falling Feeling, where she picks the acoustic guitar and sings. These two songs are both nice enough and work within the context of the record, but they seem kind of standard for this type of singer-songwriter album.
It's a Lie is not standard. Her guitar is tremoloed, and the bass is a slippery warble, courtesy of James McNew, who also plays in Yo La Tengo. There is also a little keyboard loop here, and it combines with McNew's bass riff to make the song a happy little bouncy thing.
She is back to the acoustic for The Road. She sings over a jangly guitar that is joined by a slide guitar on the chorus. Nice enough. Standing For Nobody is a similar sort of normal, but well done, singer-songwriter tune, only she eventually layers in a nice cello bit under the guitar.
But then we get to Tell Me What You Need, a completely different type of song. It starts with a keyboard bit, a funky drum machine, and then synth bass, slippery, underneath her voice. This is catchy as heck. I like that here she has stepped out from singer-songwriter folk rock and is just making an exuberant pop tune. I love the way that this song grows.
Down To the Wire continues the funkiness with a keyboard drone as drums tap under her acoustic guitar and voice. This reminds me, slightly, of Steffaloo. Fun.
On It's Gonna Get Worse drummer Jon Langmead cuts loose, really going crazy behind the singing and acoustic strumming. It makes the song fun and rollicking.
She channels Steffaloo and early Heather Duby on You're Not There, with scattered percussion and melancholy droning keys under her voice. An unhappy tune, but very pretty. But she picks the mood back up for Don't Talk to Me, in which Langmead and McNew pound away behind her. The song is poppy and fun, even if the lyrics tell another tale of love failed.
And we end the record with Black Sky Blanket, a slow, mellow, quiet tune that has a hint of melancholy to it. I like how strings swell up at the end, enveloping the piano and her voice. A lovely end to the record.
Jennifer O'Connor can write a catchy tune, and she has a lovely voice. I think she is at her best when she fleshes out her songs with a full band. She managed to shine through the haze of dozens (dozens!) of similar sort of promos that we receive here at EvilSponge HQ, and that is really saying something.
This record interests me, and i am mostly a fan of ambient music. I bet if you mostly listen to this sort of thing, you will find a lot to enjoy here.