Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures
Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.
Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.
The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.
Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.
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