Aoife O'Donovan

Fossils

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While attending the New England Conservatory of Music, and before she founded the genre-blurring string band Crooked Still, singer and songwriter Aiofe O'Donovan set her sights upon making a record -- she even had a short list of producers picked out. Over a decade later, with Crooked Still on hiatus, O'Donovan's perseverance results in Fossils, her solo debut. Her patience was further rewarded by snagging Tucker Martine as producer -- the first name on that list. O'Donovan's brand of folk music comes out of tradition but refuses to be pinned down by it. Backed by a stellar band that includes guitarist Ryan Scott, bassist Jacob Silver, drummer Robin MacMillan, pedal steel guitarist Charlie Rose, and Rob Burger on various keyboards and accordion, O'Donovan offers ten originals that are a varied and lovely lot. The opener is her own version of "Lay My Burden Down," a track cut by Alison Krauss on 2011's Paper Airplane. The songwriter's take is more ethereal, her vocal less earthbound. It doesn't come from the land so much as hover above it. Rose's shimmering steel, Burger's Mellotron, soft, shuffling double-time drums, and an electric guitar solo create the sense of travel: being between the terrain exited and the territory that awaits. "Red & White & Blue & Gold" may be the set's strongest cut. Opening as a lazy, limpid, whispering country song, O'Donovan's soulful, slightly smoky alto is doubled by her sister Fionnuala's as it opens into a glorious love song with Rose's steel unstitching the emotion as Burger's Wurlitzer drifts right into them both. "Fire Engine" is an uptempo rocking bluegrass tune that feels a little like Emmylou Harris & the Hot Band. The slow, minor-key country-rock of "Beekeeper," with Jeremy Kittel adding his fiddle (he also appears on "Glowing Heart" later on), works itself up into a taut, smoldering, deeply sensual rocker. Sam Amidon lends his understated harmony vocal to the sparsely arranged love song "Briar Rose," and the trumpet of Dave Douglas (returning a favor: O'Donovan appeared on his Be Still in 2012) accents the Richard & Linda Thompson-flavored Anglo folk-rock of "Thursday's Child." Throughout, her songs are strong, clever, honest, and provocative. Martine's production is experimental yet unintrusive; he focuses all the sounds, textures, and instruments on the contrasts in O'Donovan's voice, understanding that at its heart lies a contrast of wispy earthiness and otherworldly ethereality. His touches adorn; they don't cover or drape. Fossils is not only an auspicious debut, but one that lives up to, and at times even exceeds, the promise of its potential.

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