The Upshot: Two songs in and your inner beast will be soothed, if not seduced, as Alabama-born Coco O’Connor baits her gentle trap – a blend of country-hued heartland music – as inspired by her Nashville tutelage as it is by the haunting effects of her remote home in the mountains of Santa Fe.
BY ERIC THOM
At 27 minutes, this 7-song release might be considered more of a tease than a full sale yet, there’s no denying that something powerful is going on here. With just enough of a taste to set the bar, once hooked, you’ll want more. This is not the first kick at the stall for the 45-year old Alabama native. In fact, This Ol’ War is her sophomore release after ‘16’s Turquoise. Beyond her statuesque, good looks – no obstacle to marketing – O’Connor proves her worth as a sophisticated songwriter (providing 2 slick originals and 5 tasty co-writes) and singer. Her writing reflects her status as an outsider, migrating to the mountains and vistas of Santa Fe, New Mexico after rejecting Nashville’s hustle, bustle and the pressures of creative judgments. Valuable time spent nurturing her latest work in relative isolation made all the difference, as did connecting with wunderkind Parker Cason on the project. What comes out in her music is any combination of family, history and roots influences driven by an outgoing and rebellious spirit. Multi-instrumentalist Cason (piano, organ, synth, acoustic guitar and pedal steel) also served as O’Connor’s like-minded producer and her assembled band features Jon Radford (drums), Rich Brinsfield (bass), Michael Rinne/Sadler Vaden [Jason Isbell] (guitars), Wanda Vick (fiddle, mandolin, dobro), Judy Rodman (backing vocals) with Jeff White adding vocals to the third track).
Maybe it’s the sepia-toned artwork or sense of detachment but one can’t help but feel an overall sense of time standing still – from O’Connor’s references to the Civil War to time spent in the remote grandeur of her mountain perch. Lyrical content ranges from the trials and tribulations of relationships to dancing with her Daddy, exile, hardship and home – clearly where her heart lives. Consider the rural charm of the mandolin-driven “Daddy’s Arms” where, strong of voice, O’Connor “Aw, shucks!” her way through a down-home family portrait that might cause Alison Krauss to blush. She and her mercurial band are well-suited as they embrace O’Connor’s strong vocals with layers of moody pedal steel, fiddle, dobro, guitar and percussion. From this strong country-does-bluegrass beginning, strong-picking dominates another dobro-friendly track, “The Devil, A Wounded Man & Me”, while O’Connor doubles up with Jeff White on vocals, to impressive effect, as Wanda Vick’s fiddle stitches it all together.
One of the album’s best tracks is her very own “Abilene” – so good it sounds like an old country song you’ve had in your head for years. Having already demonstrated her able vocal range, the deep-dish twang of baritone guitar and a timeless snare shuffle (complete with a string section) sets O’Connor free with a vocal that absolutely soars in heartfelt tribute to her Texas roots, delivering both pleasure and pain with a bittersweet edge. “This Ol’ War” depicts matters of the heart, her mezzo-soprano voice hitting even higher ground as her band toughens to mine more of a country-rock vein, leaning on atmospheric lead guitar and weeping pedal steel. Another powerhouse track is the promising “South of Santa Fe”, making effective use of pedal steel and backup vocalist Judy Rodman – another fine example of her songwriting _ a co-write with Doug Kahan. The odd duck might be “Crenshaw County” – a somewhat clunky depiction of unrealized goals and hardship – O’Connor donning her Daisy Mae cut-offs and cryin’ the real-world blues with the help of pedal steel, fiddle and some tasty lead guitar from ‘Vadler’. However, its odd chorus of “Crenshaw County” just doesn’t feel like it fits the song. However, this detour is immediately redeemed by the O’Connor/Cason composition “Free State of Winston”. It’s the song Tom Petty was born to sing yet, in his absence, O’Connor injects it with rocky swagger and plenty of attitude. This is one infectious earworm that leaves This Ol’ War on a high note as it underlines O’Connor’s wide-ranging tastes and chameleonic abilities. At four minutes in length, it’s the track you’d wish would go on much longer while the band’s barrage of B3, screaming guitars and pounding rhythms is anything but where this record began.
This may suggest that O’Connor isn’t entirely clear on where she wants to go next with her music. It’s a little California, a little Nashville and the product of a woman who’s lived a real life and is ready to write about it. Over the course of seven short songs, she’s covered a lot of ground, musically – hinting at her potential. She’s beyond her years in musical maturity and, given the high quality of songwriting found on this record, her compelling vocals and skills at arranging, whatever follows should fully illuminate where this evolution is taking her. Given her uniquely isolated perspective and capacity for dynamic performance, this next release should be well worth looking forward to.
ESSENTIAL TRACKS: Free State of Winston