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Jennifer O’Connor - I Want What You Want

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Artist: Jennifer O’Connor

Album: I Want What You Want

Label: Kiam

Review date: Jan. 6, 2012

“I want what you want,” Jennifer O’Connor confides twice, first in the brief solo guitar and voice treatment of “Another Day” at the beginning of this fifth solo album, and later in a keyboard-driven, pop-leaning reprise of the same song near the end. It’s an interesting sentiment, one that relinquishes, right off the bat, most of the self-centered egotism of contemporary confessional pop. It acknowledges, in a way that it’s hard to imagine Dylan or Darnielle or Ryan Adams or any of our male lyrics-oriented balladeers doing, that the other is primary, that his (or her) desires take precedence, even before knowing exactly what those desires are. O’Connor never really elaborates on what is wanted, or how the whole thing plays out (it seems to end badly). But she does set up a very interesting dynamic, one in which the voice we hear is self-effacing, reticent, and not always the hero of its own stories. All but one of these songs are written in the first person, yet that first person remains in the background, detached, acting mostly as an observer.

It’s not that these songs aren’t personal – or that they avoid personal subjects. Most of them are about relationships under various kinds of stress. Yet you have a sense of aftermath, as if O’Connor has had a considerable while to process raw feelings into songs. The mood is more exhausted than angry, and maybe, towards the end of the album, just starting to turn the corner into acceptance. “I don’t wanna go where I always go / I don’t wanna be where I’ve been,” O’Connor sings in the uptempo and relatively upbeat “Good Intentions,” and you get a very clear picture of the singer squaring her shoulders, bracing herself and heading out into the world again.

O’Connor is supported by a small group of regular collaborators, Jon Langmead (of Choo Choo La Rouge) on drums, Michael Brodlieb on bass, and Amy Bezunartea (who records on O’Connor’s Kiam label) singing backup. Tim Fohljan of Two-Dollar Guitar sits in on a couple of tracks, adding a touch of twang to “Hidden Hill," an extra layer of picking to “Swan Song (For Bella)." The sound varies from unadorned folky simplicity (“How I Will Get By," “7/12/09”) to full-on mid-’90s girl rock (think Juliana Hatfield or the Throwing Muses) in “Already Gone” and “You Come Around.” Throughout, O’Connor sings in a dusky, direct manner, hitting the notes straight on, not too hard, and without the slightest bit of showoffiness. It’s a style that conveys honesty above all else, and you believe that pretty much every word is true, though perhaps she’s not telling you everything.

I find myself liking the harder, rougher cuts the best. The strident, tambourine-paced, bass-thumping “Already Gone,” for instance, injects some much-needed excitement into the mix, while the howling, feedback of “No One Knows Anything” provides a frame for O’Connor’s drained and weary acceptance. Yet there’s something, too, to be said for the unadorned and straight-to-the-point ruminations of “Change Your Life," where only slow, three-timing drums and the occasional ping of keyboard punctuate O’Connor’s new rules for living. (“If you want to change your life…you’re going to have to change your mind…you cannot afford the lies…you’re telling yourself and everybody else.”)

O’Connor offers a fairly guarded variety of confessional songwriting. You pick up little details but never the full agonizing picture of a relationship going wrong. While she doesn’t exhaust the nasty details, you have a sense that everything she does tell you is accurate. It’s a refreshing antidote to our Kardashian-obsessed times, when people will tell you anything about their personal lives and 90 percent of it isn’t even true. O’Connor looks you straight in the eye and sticks to the truth, and if there’s a bit of the story that’s none of your business (and there undoubtedly is), an elliptical pause will do just fine.

By Jennifer Kelly

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