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Jennifer O’Connor - Here With Me

Released on Matador Records, 8/19/08

Within all the reviews I read of Jennifer O’Connor’s catalog of work, spanning from 2002 to present, one thing was made clear: this ain’t your ordinary female indie folk songster. For Jennifer O’Connor, abiding for the time being in Brooklyn, NY, music just so happens to be her religion as well as her muse. Or, at least, this is what I am told.

After a little more research, a lot more listening, and many more reviews aglow with praise and accolades, I began to understand what all the fuss is about. Not only has O’Connor withstood the test of time and defied the heteronormative gender standards and sexist ideals of the entertainment industry where cleavage equates revenue and pout produces profit, but she also has a good story to tell and does it with style and charm.

This is something the vast majority of singer-songwriters lack when it comes to living with pain and composing through sorrow. Often what is meant to be a cathartic cleanse comes off as whiney, pitiful and pedestrian. We listen to music to escape the humdrums of life and regularities of human emotion. We prefer to hear songs straight from the horses mouth, from those that have the gift of a concise, clean rawness that makes the listener feel entitled to a little wallowing here and there, and Jennifer O’Connor’s latest release Here With Me gives the listener just that.

There are definite similarities between O’Connor and label-mates of yesteryear Liz Phair and Neko Case. The husky vocals, the confessional lyricism and semi-accusatory tone, and the standard pop structure and rock backbeat are ever present in O’Connor’s songs. But where Phair turns to sultry sex and Case turns to Americana swing, O’Connor is somehow able to keep her simple songs solid but edgy enough to keep things interesting. Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that she enlisted the help of John Agnello who has worked with rock giants Sonic Youth, pop revivalists The Hold Steady and psychedelic-grunge pioneers Dinosaur Jr. Obviously this is a man with a plan, someone who is in it for much more than the hit, but more to shape and mold the process of the artist’s creative flow.

As I said before, these songs are far from complex. In fact, O’Connor did not begin playing music until after she graduated college in the late nineties. But what is so striking about the songs on Here With Me is how stark and sparse the lines are, both vocal and melody. There is emptiness within the thick and throaty rasp that carries throughout the entire album, but is best showcased in “Landmine”, a lament on loss and the exposure within honesty.

The title track, “Here With Me”, is the closest to mainstream pop O’Connor ever gets. It is an upbeat and catchy love song that will most likely appear as backing music in the latest Ipod commercial or Target ad campaign. And why not? Though O’Connor’s music does not happen to be mind-blowingly virtuosic or necessarily anything all that original, it certainly is a straightforward, genuine, and graspable approach to a genre that seems to have lost its way. O’Connor’s songwriting has a timelessness that most never achieve and a genuineness that is both sincere and harrowing. So if she moves some merchandise at the same time, at least she will leave us humming her tunes as we open our wallets.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars