Born in Dublin, Ireland and now residing in Brooklyn, New York, the folk singer/songwriter John Cathal O’Brien began playing guitar and writing songs at an early age. In the past he has played in several traditional Irish bands but at a certain point decided to focus on his solo career. If you’re thinking here that you should stop reading because you think this is going to be a traditional Irish folk singer full of sad drinking songs and refrains to be sung along to, first of all shame on you and secondly it’s not like that at all. O’Brien has released several albums to date and his latest offering is called These Borders.
The opening song “Cures” proves that this is not going to be a happy-sad ride of songs that will make you cry into your beer, but rather some very somber and stripped-down solo recordings that are at times hauntingly brilliant. By the second song, “Tavern” I was feeling that O’Brien was akin to such slow folk balladeers as Damien Jurado and Dan Mangan. The song is so simple yet so gripping. There’s this ethereal backing musicianship to it and a slightly shy eminence of female backing vocals which really makes the song so much more than it would have been without them. These are the small intricacies which so many other harbingers of the solo craft fail to recognize.
Later, on the album’s crown jewel of a song, the six-minute epic “Falling Life” the ghostly haze that is the backdrop to O’Brien’s acoustic guitar and vocals plays such an important part in giving off a ghostly presence which serves to add posterity to his melancholic story-song lyrics. Even when the song’s tone is less dramatic, as it is on the folksier closer “Winter” the backing effects just help to add so much more depth to the song.
These Borders is one of the best records by a solo-acoustic singer/songwriter that I have heard in a long while, and I have heard a lot. John Cathal O’Brien brings a lot more to his songs than just a guitar and vocals; he brings the whole record. These Borders is a result of what it means to hone a craft and the fruit that hard work bears.
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