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Villagers, Village Underground, London

  • Written by  Russell Warfield

Although still pivoted around Connor O’Brien’s distinctive voice and song writing, this year’s stellar {Awayland} was a huge leap forward in sonic ambition for Villagers – a move which has been met with widespread critical acclaim, but also one which threatened to put the band in a rock-and-a-hard-place situation when it came to their stage show, opening a potential fissure between the material of the two LPs.

Could the band, for instance, replicate the far reaching production flourishes of {Awayland} in the live setting? And, let’s say that if they could, would they even want to? Might that cast the should-be excellent Becoming A Jackal material in a paler light, sounding skeletal in comparison to the textures of the new material? But in the event, there was no cause for concern, with material from both LPs standing shoulder to shoulder without issue, propped up by the strength of O’Brien’s song writing, and the musicianship of Villagers.

It was a brief fancy of mine that the songs on ‘Awayland’ were underdeveloped in comparison to the material of ‘Becoming A Jackal’; that the songs were using textural experimentation as a smokescreen to bolster lukewarm ideas. But listening to O’Brien perform the songs solo in recent live acoustic sessions proved this to be false, revealing the core of the songs to be as strong as ever, and that the textural surprises underpinning them are sincere expansions of ambition, rather than the masking of shortcomings. This is evidenced brilliantly tonight, with the switch-em-up shifts in the arrangements of songs like ‘The Waves’ and ‘Judgement Call’ being rendered effortlessly. And the musical prowess of Villagers tonight means that even the passages of {Awayland} which actually do arguably see O’Brien on slightly more formless form – ‘Grateful Song’, and ‘Passing A Message’, for instance – still meaningfully deliver in a sonic sense, even as you suspect they might not as successfully survive a stripped-back treatment.

Switching between the two LPs on an almost song to song basis for vast swathes of the set, Villagers prove that their new and more sophisticated approach to recording isn’t a reflection of a new approach to writing or performing, and that the two collections of tracks are much closer cousins than their studio renderings might first cause you to think. To be sure, the sunnier swing of tracks like ‘The Pact’ have a far breezier disposition in comparison much of the new material, but at no point does drawing from both LPs in equal measure push the set into incoherence – quite the opposite in fact. Tonight is instead a wonderful showcase of how confident song writing can bring together a vast range of sonic ambitions, as well as how Villagers are more than capable of rendering their aural visions in the live setting, without losing anything in the way of human touch. As well as being early contenders for album of the year, Villagers also assert themselves as being one of the strongest live acts you’re likely to enjoy in 2013.

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