Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars
any a star doth Matador make—so precedent has shown. But the young Jennifer O’Connor is the latest example of Matador’s double-edged sword: the label manages to get it right with shocking frequency, but so often this indie cornerstone is only rewarded in the afterlife—and often the money ends up in someone else’s pocket. Liz Phair hiring the Matrix and finding herself sitting pretty on the soundtrack of a Mandy Moore movie was hardly a reward for her former label, nor was the all-but-unnoticed evaporation of Bettie Serveert.
Jennifer O’Connor is the new baby. When the Matador family brings a new baby home, she or he wails with raw, implacable agony and confusion that not even Stuart Murdoch can soothe. The parents employ the hands-off approach: don’t smother Jennifer with too much affection; don’t buy her too many toys. Throw her a baby shower, put her on the family Christmas card, but give her room to breathe. Make sure she’s sufficiently integrated in a social circle (James McNew, Kendall Meade, Britt Daniel). The result of this tried and true tactic is Over the Mountain, a delicate, underwritten prototype and back catalogue in the making.
O’Connor’s diffident cross-country narratives are at odds with her hoarse vocals, her age-defying capabilities as a vocalist bogged down by limited experience. In young Chan Marshall’s case the vocal and lyrical content worked in unison because Marshall was usually too exhausted to attempt anger—something that permeates O’Connor’s debut. More importantly, she was a better writer, and her rasp suited the content well. O’Connor is too fond of rhyme, and she is married to the plight of what appears to be a singular futile romance. While her acoustic guitar’s dominance may suggest strength in loyalty rather than numbers, O’Connor doesn’t so much brandish her instrument as stumble across it. The monotony of Marshall’s incidental, leaden piano chords have much in common with O’Connor’s plucks, but O’Connor would need Marshall’s poetic elegance, DiFranco’s virtuosity, or Phair’s gusto to carry off her album. Lyrics aside, Over The Mountain reinforces the near-human presence of the piano as an instrument and the inventive skill required of any musician who can make the guitar a worthy competitor.
But O’Connor is young. Her thoughtful excavations of the heart, best executed on “Dirty City Blues” and “Complicated Rhyme,” are not stunning, but they are touching. In the latter case, O’Connor upgrades the organic second-person narrative/guitar duality in favor of strings and a stormy syncopated rhythm, but the equal parts trite and relatable chorus, “We could start over, darling / We could make everything brand new,” is as unwelcome as the Damien Jurado-reminiscent “Today.” That song, like a handful of the other tracks, has a delivery so understated only animals can hear it.
I blame O’Connor’s transient lover for the “Bullshit Maze” of thought processes that has inspired this album. He or she is one more in a long line of detestable romantic figures that grasp bards in a stranglehold and bestow boring and sometimes revelatory writing powers upon their victims. “Let’s take a walk / We need to talk” and the dull wind-up guitar melody that accompanies it on “Maze” is hardly an example of revelatory potential, but the album elsewhere insists that O’Connor has something going for her, mastermind label affiliation aside.
The double meaning of the word ‘effortless’ suits this album well: the excessively lean compositions of many songs hold the project as a whole back, but not surprisingly it’s the catchy small-town anecdotes on tracks like “Perfect Match” that are the pushiest and the most convincing. While her first Matador release will not impress anyone to the point of paralysis, if O’Connor can survive the penury, the tools that experience affords will in time reward the singer’s fans—and maybe even the singer.