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In the Magic Hour

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Album Review

The twin powers of the road and memory are powerful, beguiling forces for singer/songwriters. Aoife O'Donovan is no exception. In the Magic Hour is her sophomore album. Written mostly during a solitary respite from traveling, its intimate songs are haunted by the emotional resonance of memory. The life and passage of her 93-year-old grandfather and her childhood visits to his Clonakilty seaside village in Ireland loom large over these recordings. Re-teaming with producer Tucker Martine, the pair built these tunes from the barest of essentials — usually just her voice and a guitar — before a studio band and carefully woven contributions of collaborators (including Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Chris Thile, Brooklyn Rider, Rob Burger, Eyvind Kang, and Tony Furtado) were added. Employing standard folk-rock instrumentation, the words in "Stanley Park" could be a closing song rather than an album opener: "...If I could take my rest/Back in the belly from where I came/nobody knows my name…" Burger's piano highlights the lilting melody on the horizon of her poignant lyrics but never gets maudlin. The title track is brighter, framed in an arrangement that approaches Baroque pop. Pump organ, Wurlitzer, Watkins' fiddle, crisp snare, and reverbed electric guitars bump under O'Donovan's in the rear view lyrics. "Donal Óg" commences with long, modal, droning electric guitars, its undercurrent of Celtic melody is sad and wistful in a narrative that's equally painful and affirmative. The voice of her grandfather wafts in from the margins in its closing moments, underscoring its poignancy. Gabriel Kahane arranges the strings for Brooklyn Rider on "The King of All Birds," a minor-key, acoustic-electric rocker with winds and brass patched into its final frames to add texture and harmonic imagination. Furtado's banjo, Watkins', fiddle, and Laura Veirs' backing vocal adorn the shimmering, heartbroken waltz "Not the Leaving." It's answered by "Detour Sign," in which O'Donovan's protagonist blows up a relationship, deciding love is not enough in facing of her life challenges. Amid the meld of guitars, the Wurlitzer erects the tune's spine; it buoys the words — which admit regret even as they decide a course of action — as well as the rest of the instrumentation. Closer "Jupiter" contains words that almost contradict it. Amid bittersweet memory, temporal displacement, and the tension of greeting an uncertain future, the protagonist concludes in the resolve that love triumphs. The vanguard folk-cum-art song music is bracing, led by the strings of Brooklyn Rider. In the Magic Hour lives up to its title. O'Donovan's sometimes searing, always poetically rendered lyrics are matched by astute, economically articulated melodies. These songs leave listeners with the impression that they actively chose to grant emotions and memory places as proper collaborators here. O'Donovan seems certain that as she allows them voice, the trails they carve in the heart become as priceless as what they teach.

Customer Reviews

A Fine Magic Hour

One of the most compelling tracks on Yo-yo Ma's adventurous "Goat Rodeo Sessions" was an intelligently written piece featuring Crooked Still folk singer Aoife O'Donovan. O'Donovan, who hails from the Boston area and occurs somewhere between Jonatha Brooke and Alison Krause, released a solo album not long after that revealed a promising indie artist. Now, three years later, she has released an emotive follow-up called The Magic Hour. O'Donovan has a pitch-perfect voice that toggles effortlessly across at least three octaves. It's supple and intimate - more confident here than on her first solo effort, and more contemporary than on her folk-oriented work with Crooked Still. Her lyrical view pulls strongly from childhood imagery, bending wonder and discovery into takes on love and longing. On the title track, she opines: "In the magic hour when the moonlight gleams and the sky's the kind of grey that you've never seen 'til you've seen it..." It's beautiful stuff, and easy to see why the world's most renowned cellist gave her the call.


Aoife has such a beautiful and ethereal voice. The arrangements have subtle complexities that make each listen a little different. Each song is unique, but bird and childhood references tie the whole thing in a sweet bow!


Aoife knocked it out of the park on this album! The lyrics are raw and absolutely beautiful. Her voice is in perfect harmony with the instrumentals. This has to be the best album I've heard all year


Born: November 18, 1982 in Newton, MA

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Aoife O'Donovan is an American singer and songwriter based in Brooklyn. While she is best known as the founder and frontwoman of the string band Crooked Still, she is also one-third of the female trio Sometymes Why, and has appeared on the Prairie Home Companion radio program. Her collaborations have been numerous and stylistically wide-ranging, including such varied artists as jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas; Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile's Goat Rodeo Sessions band; the Boston...
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In the Magic Hour, Aoife O'Donovan
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