Reviewed by: Max Miller
Tara Jane O’Neil isn’t exactly a household name, even in indie rock circles, where the uplifting of obscure artists is undertaken with the seriousness of old dudes at country clubs playing golf. Her old band Rodan is sometimes exalted by these types — partly because they ran in the same Louisville circles as Will Oldham and were once endorsed by John Peel, but mainly because they were damn good — but her impressive solo discography, beginning with 2000’s Peregrine, remains somewhat overlooked. Not that this seems to bother O’Neil, who possesses the work ethic of a true artist, as her many musical and visual art collaborations can attest.
Yet even if O’Neil isn’t ruffled by living a life in the indie world’s shadows, her ninth studio album feels like a reintroduction. By consciously evoking the “singer-songwriter” archetype, the conspicuously self-titled Tara Jane O’Neil seeks to apply the multi-instrumentalist’s careful compositions, avant-garde inclinations and simmering soundscapes to a simpler framework. Over the course of eleven low-key tunes, O’Neil crafts a straightforward record that’s no less lush than her more ambient, experimental works.
Opener “Flutter” builds with a found-sound fake-out before O’Neil takes the reigns with her sparse, pristine guitar lines and breathy vocals. The song feels somewhat melancholy, but as it unfolds, it begins to take the shape of a love song, albeit one imbued with a sunny afternoon sleepiness, as O’Neil sings, “All my life you’re a flutter / You’re a beat away.” “Blow” prolongs the beatific vibes, with O’Neil evoking a ‘70s soft rock ballad by way of Tortoise. Her layered vocals build to an immaculate chorus, and the song is marked overall by some of the strongest melodies on the album.
Unsurprisingly, Tara Jane O’Neil is a beautifully recorded album, produced partially live at Wilco’s Loft Studio in Chicago — which might explain some of the record’s impeccable Jim O’Rourke-esque vibes — and partially at O’Neil’s own home studio in California. There are incredible instrumental touches all over the album, from the horns on “Sand” to the stuttering mandolins on “Laugh” or the blanket of strings on “Great.” O’Neil’s guitar, the most consistent instrumental presence, always sounds perfect, transitioning seamlessly between chiming post-rock shades and twangy Laurel Canyon vibes.
Tara Jane O’Neil can be a very understated record — an album for summer afternoons on the porch or twilight on a lake. At first listen, a lot of its subtleties can escape the listener, and some of the tracks seem to blur together. But as her inclinations toward ambient music and tape loops hints, O’Neil packs a lot of surprising textures into her songs which reward the patient listener. While this record certainly feels like a gateway for the more songwriter-inclined listener to become acquainted with her music, Tara Jane O’Neil feels like a new take on the same deft compositions O’Neil has been crafting for years.