Don't I Know (Sugar Hill)
Maura O'Connell's new album, Don't I Know, is a tender record about life's toughest subjects. The most beautiful songs deal with death. The most heartbreaking songs are about reaching out for love. Even the happiest songs are about holding on through hardship or overcoming obstacles. All 11 songs deal with how to get on without giving up.
Irish-born, but long a resident of Nashville, O'Connell has one of the world's most expressive voices; she's a full-toned, note-perfect singer, her lower register a glowing amber full of introspection and warmth, her higher register capable of soaring power and aching delicacy. For all her talent, her greatest strength is her ability to select outstanding songs and convey them with subtle yet stunning emotional clarity.
Don't I Know is O'Connell's first album since 2001, and only her eighth in 16 years. With her last album, Walls and Windows, she collaborated with producer Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver) in an effort to get a little rowdier and grittier than usual. She succeeded, too, but her gifts still shined brightest on the introspective numbers.
With Don't I Know, O'Connell turns the studio back over to Dobro master Jerry Douglas, who also produced the four albums she released in the '90s; the musical connection between the two is more intimate and transcendent than ever. Douglas has a knack for creating a catchy instrumental hook for each track, then letting it carry through the song in an inconspicuous way that blends into the moody atmosphere of the arrangement. Don't I Know is a wonderfully played, cleanly produced piece of work, a perfect presentation of O'Connell's gifts as a storyteller.
As they always have, the two collaborators work in service of the songs, and this time, O'Connell doesn't ease the tension with lighthearted moments or up-tempo confections. These are 11 fully drawn dramas, each featuring protagonists caught in deep introspection.
Even the album's love songs, "Hold On" and "Love You in the Middle," are about the gravity of life rather than staying light on one's toes. "Hold On" shows Douglas' flare, as it turns songwriter Clare Burson's acoustic arrangement into something moody and mystical, built around an unusual rhythm arrangement featuring bassist Viktor Krauss and drummer Shannon Forrest. "Love You in the Middle" is even more complex, with a Middle Eastern melody featuring Bryan Sutton on guitar and bouzouki.
O'Connell's maturity and Douglas' ability to add instrumental depth to a strong melody provides an extra dimension to Mindy Smith's "Going Down in Flames," a song about a careful but lonely person who, out of character, propositions a stranger. From that bold start, the woman uses the connection to reveal her pain, telling this potential lover that she needs someone to listen, someone to assure her that life is indeed as hard as it seems.
In "Didn't I" (written by Kim Richey and Tim Krekel), the singer tries to convince herself that she did the best she could to save a doomed relationship. But when she asks the question in the title, it's obvious that she can't help wondering if she could have done more. In "Up and Flying," a song written by Patty Griffin and Gary Burrand one of the album's strongest vocal performancesthe main character recognizes how her ex's career and love life are soaring while she's still trying to pick the broken pieces of herself off the ground.
In typical Irish fashion, though, the most striking songs are about death; they're also the songs that dwell the most on the inner strength needed to make it through a hard period. Written by Tim O'Brien and Pat Alger, "Time to Learn" deals with the aftermath of the unexpected death of a loved one. The arrangement is stunning, with O'Connell singing over Edgar Meyer's bowed double bass for the first stanza, and guitarist Russ Barenberg and Dobroist Douglas adding beautiful counterpoint solos as the track unfolds. Touchingly sung, the lyrics move through the stages of grief, from disbelief to regret to acceptance and finally to the realization that, in time, we must learn to let go.
O'Connell's own "There's No Good Day for Dying" provides a blueprint for how to do just that. Built around a mournful lap-steel melody by Douglas, it's about looking to the heavens to find the strength to be a sympathetic shoulder for other mourners to lean on. The song is as stunning as "Amazing Grace," and as with all of Don't I Know, it's a modern-day hymn, not about worshipping a savior, but about finding ways to save ourselves.
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