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First Listen: Villagers, '{Awayland}'

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In the past, calling Villagers a band has been a misnomer: From its inception, it's been little more than an alias for Conor O'Brien, a singer-songwriter from Dublin with a flair for the dramatic and a gift for creating rich arrangements out of instruments he's played himself. Villagers' 2010 debut, Becoming a Jackal, was recorded almost entirely by O'Brien; it sets his unpredictable narratives to pretty arrangements with sturdy and simple melodies at their core. Becoming a Jackal is a marvelous record, but it's easy to reconfigure its songs to suit a standard guy-with-guitar configuration.
For a follow-up, O'Brien looked outside himself to craft {Awayland}, an idiosyncratic and surprising collection of songs that aren't so simple, in part because the singer recruited outside collaborators and listened to their ideas. The result is a mix of thoughtful approachability ("My Lighthouse") and an assortment of trips down more surprising side roads. A stormy epic, "The Waves" billows out majestically, while "Earthly Pleasure" packs roughly eight minutes worth of song — murder, intrigue, the devil, an array of human failings — into a tidy four-minute package.
At its best, as in the marvelous single "Nothing Arrived," {Awayland} mixes the two approaches: An anthem about low expectations — "I waited for something / and something died," he sings, adding, "So I waited for nothing / and nothing arrived" — the song packs big ideas into a gently rollicking, peppily digestible nugget. It embodies O'Brien's considerable gift for songs that almost always turn something on its head.
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