Til The Dawn
Rating: Basically the best album of 2004 that nobody heard in 2004
Nora O'Connor is one of those faces you see and recognize, but only faintly, and only briefly, and then forget that you thought you recognized her in the first place. She doesn't mind. O'Connor has performed as part of two great Chicago indie institutions -- first with the Blacks, then with Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire -- and you probably had nary a clue. And if that resume ain't impressive enough, then how about this? She's also an ordained minister, which, in this correspondent's opinion, comes in handy when writing and performing insurgent-country music.
If at first Miss O'Connor comes off as a cross between a poor (wo)man's Norah Jones and Patty Griffin, then try, try again. She doesn't do the coffee shop thing as well as Jones, nor does she possess the pipes of Griffin, but what she lacks in vocal chops and Starbucks-milieu, she more than makes up for with an ear for stick-to-your-ribs melodies and hopelessly romantic songwriting. These songs stay with you without really trying. At their heart, they're good ole' country tunes -- but it's the touches of gospel, jazz, blues and mountain music (by way of Chicago, Illinois) that help this too short of an album (at just under 32 minutes) proclaim its greatness to the world. Too bad no one seems to be listening.
From the opening bars of "My Backyard," its clear that Nora O'Connor has no plans for world domination. It's a sweet and tender tribute to hearth and home, one that glides effortlessly over flights of harmonica and Hammond organ. It's followed by "Bottoms", a bluesy fiddle-tune with country harmonies and plenty of barroom heartache. Over the course of nine tracks, O'Connor tempers her country leanings with straight up city/songwriting chops. It works for the most part -- though you wouldn't here me complaining if she leaned a little more West Virginia sometimes.
She still comes through in spades, however: tracks like "OK with Me" and "Nightingale" pack a punch that's rarely heard south of the Mason-Dixon these days -- let alone up-river Mississippi. The latter of the two features some gorgeous fiddle accompaniment by Andrew Bird if I'm not mistaken, who puts his own Bowl-of-Fire-era spin on O'Connor's composition. They make quite a pair. If you get the chance, look around for a pair of other tracks they've done for separate compilations -- "Oh, Sister" and "Two Way Action." If you're a fan of Bird, you won't be disappointed.
All in all, Til the Dawn is brilliant tribute to American music that gives Miss O'Connor plenty of space to shine. It's too bad I didn't hear of it until just recently, otherwise I'd have been enjoying it for going on three years now. And you shouldn't wait neither; go find it quickly, friends. You don't yet know what you're missing.
Miss O'Connor's MySpace Page
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