In The Magic Hour Solo Sessions (ep)
Yep Roc Records
Aoife O’Donovan’s 2016 album In The Magic Hour was one of the best of that year for me – easily. As is the case when O’Donovan records – she makes magic. But here on an EP of the stripped back solo sessions from that album we get a new kind of magic. Just her voice and acoustic guitar; embryonic song-shapes and a couple of covers of very well known songs by very famous writers.
When O’Donovan sings she is without peer. Well, if you’re going to reach for one name – and it comes up every time and with good reason – it’s going to be Alison Krauss. That association/comparison started when Krauss covered a song by the former Crooked Still writer/singer.
So it’s a joy to just hear O’Donovan’s voice backed by simple guitar on the stripped-back version of Magic Hour and on the acoustic rendition of The King of All Birds we hear a Suzanne Vega-like quality in the writing and shaping of the song.
Stanley Park, which opened the original album in a broad cinematic sweep, all widescreen and nearly overwhelming in its sonic beauty, is here just voice and guitar and somehow nothing is lost. It’s still a mercurial mini-epic.
But let’s get to the covers – probably the real reason to get hold of this EP. First up it’s Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. So it’s peak-Boss, in terms of the writing, and there’s something particularly beautiful about Aoife’s version. Her voice soars yet the narrative of the song is neither lost nor glossed over. There’s an extra clarity in this version.
The same is true when O’Donovan takes on a very well-known Joni Mitchell tune. You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio has never been one of my personal favourite Mitchell songs, something about the pleased-with-itself silly-clanger pun-title has always bugged me. And Joni almost over-sings as she stretches the melody lines when she sings, “From ‘Breakfast Barney’/To the sign-off prayer/What a sorry face you get to wear/I’m gonna tell you again now/If you’re still listening there/If you’re driving into town….” I wonder if it’s the slightly hokey country-rock arrangement.
Anyway, in a respectful, laid-back ,windswept version Aoife O’Donovan frames the lyric with slow, plaintive strumming and the very simple, evocative use of gentle but obvious chord changes. She’s nowhere near Joni as a guitarist, and knows it, so she takes the song in a slightly new direction but singing it without a smile; the earnest delivery allows me to ignore the daft wordplay and focus on the great story that is being told within this extended metaphor.
That’s the great strength of Aoife O’Donovan as a writer of her own material and as a singer – she sells you the story, she makes you believe. How could you not when you hear that voice?
As a snapshot this EP of acoustic sessions will turn you on to a great talent if you haven’t already heard her. It’ll make you a fan anew. And there’s plenty here inside just 20 minutes for those of us already confirmed and waiting for any new material at all from this great singer.
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