Brigid O’Neill – Touchstone | Album Review
By Conor O’Neill
Downpatrick woman Brigid O’Neill’s debut album is a little gem of a record. 10 songs, four without percussion; a touch of Nashville; imagery that’ll leave you breathless. I’m on my fourth listen and I’m still wondering ‘where’s the filler?’
The opener, ‘Little Birds’ is homily to the soul, swallows here from the north, for warmth; ‘starlings… circling wheels’ a metaphor for those seeking redemption. Piano and guitar, this album, barring one song could have been made way back in the day. Timeless.
A little lift and we’re on to ‘Turn and Face the Sun’, a song that is so FM friendly it almost hurts itself. Not in a sickly sweet way, naivety and a knowing that comes with a certain age – in interviews she describes herself as 50ish – lines like ‘best is yet to come, ever since we learned to turn and face the sun’ make hard days seem distant memories. I’m writing this and on listen number four in drab rainy Belfast, 01 February and I can feel the burn of next August’s sun.
‘Refugees’, with its down stroked guitar, feels like a little boat chugging its way into harbour. Little time shifts and chord progressions prove O’Neill’s not your typical G, C, D songsmith. The first person approach makes it universal and personal at the same time. And just when the buttery melancholy seems too good to leave we’re dealt a knockout.
‘Iron in Your Fire’ is probably my favourite song on the album. A little slide guitar, a ballerina hobnail of a boot beat and a sultry vocal that promises ‘I can read you like a book in bed’. Backing vocals make an appearance and we could be on the Gulf coast. A lap-steel guitar maybe? I’m not sure, but things are heating up. Just in time for ‘Rumours’, ‘Holding on, together you and I are gonna prove them all wrong’. Defiance doesn’t sully this album. There’s too much humanity on show here.
And the sun falls. ‘Breathe Slow’ puts me on the Brandy Pad. Anyone familiar with the Mournes will understand the feeling of the thumping of the heart that echoes for half a mile after climbing Hare’s Gap, getting over the wall and the descent. ‘Breathe Slow’ reminds me of the calm after the storm. A perfect track for traffic jams. No other emotion but serenity is welcome when listening, truly listening to this song.
And the circles a stone leaves in its wake when tossed into a clam lake is ‘Running Back to You’. ‘There is no reason for leavin’, after my heart goes running back to you’. There’s a bongo, or is it a djembe, or fingers on an old wood-wormed oak table? More little slides of guitar and piano played high to the right. There’s a feeling to this song. Precious and guilty, depending on who’s asking.
‘Misunderstanding’, song number eight now, and 25 minutes, maybe less, maybe more in and O’Neill’s net has nothing but your head caught in it. Attention can’t be anywhere else. There’s an O.K Computer feel to this song. And still I’m trying to put a comparison on the voice. Running through female vocalists, the Irish is there, but the gallery hasn’t hung a voice like before. I flick through the Americans, Americana is here, the album was mastered in Nashville. Still scratching for an answer, the track I hinted at earlier plays.
‘They All Said’, piano, acoustic, tambourine and perfect imagery, ‘the cool north Atlantic sea’, ‘potassium flare’, ‘burning blue’, ‘you burn low, you burn slow’, the words juxtaposed against what has to be computer-borne beat, nothing natural sounds like this, a pitter-patter low down in the mix. Not rain on a caravan roof, not hail, no regularity except what the mind makes of it. Reminiscent of The Eels’ ‘Daisy Through Concrete’ yet it seems folly to try and compare. To do so is to wreck what’s on offer.
And we end on the title track, finishing as we started. Touchstone is piano and fingered chords and vocal questioning, answering, ‘I’ll walk the path that takes me home, bringing me back to my touchstone’. Strings drawn slow, the voice, ‘on solid ground… faith is found’. Not a word of anger. Miles away somewhere else, something terrible is happening, but not with headphones on and listening to lullabies.
SD Bells on Sunday 25 February with John McCullough and Matt McGinn, and on Saturday 10 March at Belfast Nashville Festival opening for Thomm Jutz and his band and then hosting a songwriters circle later on in the evening.