Tara Jane O’Neil
or her latest LP, Tara Jane O’Neil’s studio was wooden houses around her Portland, Oregon home, so it is only fitting that the album’s first song is entitled “Primer.” Named just so, it’s easy to imagine what this precocious, transient veteran’s sound does to an unfinished surface—guitars of the unplugged and wired persuasion trickle along with tambourine, modest drum work, and O’Neil’s smoky, autumnal vocals, applying a light lacquer to the raw materials of modern folk. Like the houses in which the album is set, this work is, of course, manmade, but is touched so lightly by the singer’s hand as to sound purely organic, found to occur naturally in the rural American landscape.
On In Circles are reminiscences of other folk champions known and not so known, such as Ani DiFranco’s lush and haunting work on 1996’s Dilate, and a considerable chunk of Sarah McLachlan. O’Neil shares the latter’s signature ethereality and much of her vocal intonations and range. Echoes of Georgia’s obscure outfit Hope for Agoldensummer occur on the most pared-down numbers, like the pulsing closer “This Beats,” which relies on delicate, pint-sized percussion and a round of close-to-the-ear acoustic guitars. This wordless track is indicative of O’Neil’s melodic power: in nearly every song there is both a lot and little going on.
The verbose wit of someone like DiFranco has nearly always dominated melody, whereas O’Neil’s words are secondary, if only because they’re barely audible here. In place of relational analyses are supplemental note-takings that seem almost to have been written after the sense—and perhaps entire structure—of each song was in place. Even so, the relationship of lyric to melody is so well hinged as to appear not only organic but instinctive and unrehearsed. The impromptu feel of “The Looking Box,” one of a number of electric/acoustic guitar duets, is an intelligent trick. It’s a ballad with only nuances of structure and shape, but it retains one’s attention by subtle repetition, variation, and inventive choices: the musical instruments are giving us their interpretation of outdoor goings-on. The guitars echo a twelve-note melody that almost feels spoken; it ranges around the scale in a familiar, simple pattern. But coupled with the scratching skitters of the electric guitar that drop in later, the instruments manage to convey several emotions and weather systems in a short space.
O’Neil’s voice, then, is just another instrument, albeit a crucial one. Her observations are an added bonus, and are invariably appreciative of nature, reflexively and not forcibly so. Even on Mazzy Star throwback “Blue Light Room,” the most, shall we say, peopled track, we are constantly being reminded of “stones” and “light,” of the human relationship to its natural surroundings, and of the possibility of conveying this relationship with a guitar’s waltz. Even the one minute, thirty-three second throwaway “Fundamental Tom” is infinitely recyclable: the tympani’s distant thunder storm and equally far away, classically infused acoustic guitar form a strong presence, recalling Tunng, or Chad VanGaalen in rare tip-top shape.
Save “A Partridge Song,” which is melodically the most memorable track, a considerable number of O’Neil’s songs could easily roll or trickle away, or disperse into invisibility. But O’Neil is quite traditional, ignorant of the whole ‘freak’ aspect. Unlike VanGaalen or any number of less seasoned artists, O’Neil affectionately fondles all that is episodic in folk, turning these glimmers or fragments into entire pieces. There is a focused but relaxed concentration. Each song is not some epic, confused journey with too many subsections, but an inventive chapter with thematic (aural) connections to each other. The limited body of instruments only concentrates the album further. The songs, in turn, own their physical landscape, but feel open to interpretation and transportation. The only watermark is their reverence to a musical realm that is distinctly American; this is tree hugging in its most elegant form.