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Tara Jane O'Neil - In Circles

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Artist: Tara Jane O'Neil

Album: In Circles

Label: Quarterstick

Review date: Oct. 22, 2006

Now six years and eight albums into her solo career, Tara Jane O'Neil brings a tiny bit of Rodan's guitar geometrics and a whole lot of Retsin's soft, rustic prettiness to In Circles. Opener "Primer" leans toward post-rock precision, bell-clear guitar lines cutting through ominous drone, but most of the cuts here have a clean, cool, post-folk finish to them, O'Neil angelic and frequently unintelligible as her voice slips between layers of sound. Her singing becomes a secondary device, a silvery thread running through a mesh of guitars.

There's a liquid chilliness to many of these tracks, a sense of depths beneath their gleaming surfaces, yet only occasional glimpses of human emotion. "A Sparrow Song" layers soft singing over tense, feathery guitar figures, the verse not quite understandable, as O'Neil swoops over herself in harmonies and discordant flourishes. There's a flute in the background – that's Retsin/Naysayer collaborator Cynthia Nelson – that aptly echoes O'Neil's high breathy tones. The whole composition is fuzzy, dreamy, intoxicating, unearthly, yet also curiously unreachable. It is followed by the equally nebulous, almost as beautiful "A Room for These," a song so delicate it seems to land like a feather, a brush of tangential sensation only. It is complicated and made more interesting by interwoven bits of noise; a high, static buzz emerges occasionally through the cracks of guitar strum and angelic vocals. It's not the crash and drone of Rodan, just a bit of rough surface really, but it opens up the polished textures of this tune in a very interesting way.

Perhaps getting in to these gleaming and well-considered compositions is the main problem. The main exception is "Blue Light Room," the album's best cut. What sets this track apart is not its slow-shuffling waltz-time or its plangent pedal steel, all country elements familiar to Retsin fans, but rather the warmth and directness of O'Neil's voice. She sounds more grounded here, realer, more human and far less like a disembodied choir of ghosts. Later, in "Need No Pony," the guitar playing takes the same emphatic directness, all sinew and clarity after a record full of delicacy. And with the closer "This Beats," O'Neil ventures once more into intriguing non-verbal landscapes – drone, clash and discord layered into slow-emerging patterns.

I'd like to see O'Neil push the noise elements of her work more, bringing the hiss and clangor up to where it could seriously challenge the prettiness. As it is, In Circles is lovely, but hard to love. There's not enough roughness to afford a good grip, not enough sharp edges to embed these songs into memory.

By Jennifer Kelly

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