Few guitarists and songwriters conjure more with less than
Tara Jane O’Neil. The Portland
native is a highly regarded visual artist, and you’d have to be aurally
colorblind not to hear the connections in these simple but richly nuanced
songs. For her 5th record, O’Neil has stripped down what was already
pretty sparse and relies almost exclusively on droning open notes and the
occasional shaker for percussion.
That doesn’t mean the music – highlighted by her delicate
voice and warm guitar tones – lacks sufficient bottom end, though a few cuts do
feel as if they may just float off into the ether. But those drones form the backbone of
O’Neil’s hypnotic songs. Residing atop them are the textured notes O’Neil
coaxes from her guitars, whether in cascading glissandos or droning vibratos,
octave blocks or ringing lines. “Dig In,” whose title could serve as the
record’s narrative mantra, opens with epic vibrato lines — much like those
Bill Elm uses to set the mood with Friends of Dean Martinez — before flowering
into a gentle pattern of overlapping dulcimer-like tones, ethereal harmonies,
shaker beats, and that nearly omnipresent open-string drone. “Drowning” has a
near hurdy-gurdy Irish reel sound, O’Neil’s guitar eventually raining a few
well-placed notes here and there like thunderheads on the horizon. A few
bent-string notes, diminished chords, splashes of synth and cello lines stalk
“Howl,” morphing it into a shadow-filled folk song. The record’s centerpiece is
the two-song combo “Pearl Into Sand” and “Beast, Go Along” — the former’s
drone and high-plains slide conjures Native American rituals until
synth-oscillations carry it into the guitar glissandos and string squiggles of
the latter as O’Neil warns of the beast’s imminent arrival.
As enjoyable as most of the songs are, A Ways Away lacks the impact
of 2006’s In Circles mostly because
it rarely changes temperature, cruising along at the same gentle pace throughout.
Much of that can be attributed to the lack of traditional percussion, but the
record – like her others – belongs to O’Neil and her guitars, and the spaces in
between where her evocative playing flowers.
Tracks: “Dig In” and “The Drowning Electric” JOHN SCHACHT