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Dublin seemed to be a hive for up and coming post-millennium indie-styled combos (The Chapters, Bell X1, Jape and The Redneck Manifesto, to name just a handful), but in former The Immediate multi-instrumentalist Conor J. O’Brien and his VILLAGERS, Ireland had a bona fide contender to reap some global rewards. Singer-songwriter Conor’s time as CATHY DAVEY’s guitar player was essential to finding a sound that suited himself, a band and, more importantly, an audience. VILLAGERS have never looked back with a Midas touch formula that has registered No.1 albums in their homeland.
Together with a makeshift backing band to fill out a support slot to The Chapters (November 2008), O’Brien kept the VILLAGERS motor running by booking some studio time. Bolstered by an appearance on RTE Two’s Other Voices entertainment show, the EP `Hollow Kind’ emerged as the quintet’s first release. Comprising four tracks, two of them, `The Meaning Of The Ritual’ and `Pieces’, going on to feature on VILLAGERS debut Domino Records set – delivered after a second exclusive 45 for Any Other City Records: `On A Sunlit Stage’ and indie-folk album taster, `Becoming A Jackal’ – the first “group” line-up was completed by Tommy McLaughlin (guitar/mandolin), Cormac Curran (keyboards/synths), Danny Snow (bass) and James Byrne (drums/percussion). Meanwhile, exposure on tours supporting legends NEIL YOUNG and TRACY CHAPMAN respectively, did prospective sales no harm.
BECOMING A JACKAL (2010) {*8} – the album – marked out O’Brien as the new Conor Oberst (aka BRIGHT EYES), JENS LEKMAN or even PAUL SIMON, while reviewers drooled over the man’s sullen and sophisticated singer-songwriter style. Duly nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, there was warmth in infectious dirges such as `I Saw The Dead’, `Ship Of Promises’, the very PREFAB SPROUT-esque `Set The Tigers Free’, and the Ivor Novello award-winning title track – et al!
Anticipation for Conor and his VILLAGERS’ second instalment was such that it cracked the British Top 20 in its first week of release, having already scaled the Irish charts. {AWAYLAND} (2013) {*8} was again a shoe-in for a Mercury nomination (beaten off by winner JAMES BLAKE’s soph!). Inspired by literary master, Kurt Vonnegut (he of Slaughterhouse 5 fame) and roping in solemn strings and sonic synths to juxtapose his laptop-folk, stars of the show were arguably `The Waves’, `Nothing Arrived’, `The Bell’ and `Earthy Pleasure’.
Running up their third consecutive domestic chart-topping album (UK Top 30) with 2015’s well-calculated DARLING ARITHMETIC {*7} Conor J. O’Brien’s VILLAGERS were fast becoming hot property in the indie-folk circles. Yearning for love lost through his fragile, introspective ballads (`Hot Scary Summer’, `Courage’ and `No One To Blame’ walking the tightrope between baroque pop and soft-rock), one could be forgiven for thinking BRIGHT EYES, TOM ODELL or a husky-less PASSENGER.
Collating all his best and most recent songs on the day-long-in-the-studio set, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? (2016) {*7}, Conor was hoping for a better response from outside the confines of his Irish abode. That said, there could be no better folky in the modern-day scene to smooth-out the weary wrinkles of JIM WEBB’s `Wichita Lineman’, the closing piece live at RAK.
With residents Gwion Llewelyn and Mali Llywelyn filling the void emptied by McLaughlin and Byrne, O’Brien’s VILLAGERS took on a more electronic and soulful approach for 2018’s THE ART OF PRETENDING TO SWIM {*8}. Irish sales were again on the up, whilst across the shores in Britain, the new outfit maintained their Top 30 status. O’Brien was said to have rediscovered his religion and faith again, and coming across as indie-folk’s answer to RADIOHEAD, the guiding light of opening salvo `Again’, `A Trick Of The Light’, `Long Time Waiting’ and `Love Came With All That It Brings’, belied a sense of intimacy and warmth.
© MC Strong/MCS Dec2013-Sep2018

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