Aoife O'Donovan FOSSILS (YepRoc)
It's rare for a solo artist to emerge as defined and confident as Ms O'Donovan.
From Massachusetts, she spent her teenage summers in Ireland soaking up folk and trad sessions. But it was as singer with the innovative bluegrass combo Crooked Still that her talent became obvious.
Six albums later Aoife (her label helpfully says it's pronounced 'ee-fuh'), ventures out as a solo artist. There's been a buzz on this album in the States for months. Much was expected, but with so many options available, between mainstream and roots, this could have gone either way.
O'Donovan didn't blow it. With 10 songs that could be termed folk-rock, she teamed up with Tucker Martine, whose grasp of sonic subtlety has enhanced albums by the redoubtable Laura Veirs, the Decemberists and the shamefully underrated My Morning Jacket.
Martine knows how to let O'Donovan's voice shine, keeping her band's energies coiled like an alert rattlesnake.
Opening the album with Lay My Burden Down, an O'Donovan original which Alison Krauss recorded with pristine, if uninvolved, clarity, is a courageous statement of intent. While O'Donovan easily locates the deeper emotional core, Martine allows a brief flourish of Duane Eddy-style guitar-twang to add an extra edge to proceedings.
This album doesn't shout. It reveals its charm by degrees. But it confirms O'Donovan's place in a line that stretches from Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris to Shelby Lynne and Patty Griffin. She certainly achieves her stated artistic aim, "I want every note I sing to be full of purpose."
The twinkling banjo and vocal harmonies on the gently choogling Briar Rose recall the heyday of Joe Boyd's Witchseason label. Shimmering pedal-steel and reverb guitar provide an ethereal backdrop for O'Donovan's Glowing Heart. Album closer, Oh, Mama, with its shades of Levon Helm, is sure to become a roots standard.
Welcome to County Chillout! Let's hope someone tells Aoife about the Gathering.