Magnificently packaged in a CD-sized hardcover book filled with personal artwork, lyrics, and photos, Damien Rice's debut full-length, O, is nothing less than a work of genius, a perfect cross between Ryan Adams and David Gray and a true contender for one of the best albums of 2003. This Irish singer/songwriter works with impassioned folk songs that move from stripped-down to grandly orchestrated in a heartbeat. The production is reminiscent of Songs of Leonard Cohen -- simple guitars, vocals, and then those swelling strings, all of which sound like they were recorded right in the same room. Rice is master of what critic/ranter Richard Meltzer called "the unknown tongue" -- basically the musical equivalent of the "punctum" in photos, it's that thing that grabs a hold of you, the detail that makes it happen. For example, on "Delicate" the strings lift the spare folk song to the heavens at just the moment that makes the song soar -- Meltzer might call it the "folk tongue" or maybe even the "epic tongue." The magnificent, melancholy, optimistic, longing, almost magical "The Blower's Daughter" comes in immediately as the previous song, "Volcano," ends -- same thing with the song that follows -- which gives the album a broad, operatic quality. The gentle "Cannonball," the bright strumming and surreal feedback on "Amie," the distant piano and oceanic harmonies (not to mention drowning, backwards vocals) on the duet, "Cold Water" -- the entire record makes the empty highway less lonely, the sunshine a little warmer, and life a little more poetic. Then there's the actual opera singer doing backup vocal duties on "Eskimo" -- a song of redemption that is Syd Barrett, is Skip Spence, is Grandaddy and is Mercury Rev and everything that implies. What a metaphor for Rice's entire hopelessly beautiful record -- one long angelic hymn for an insane world with the intimacy of a friend playing guitar in your living room and the grandeur of Sigur Rós.
by Charles Spano