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Review: Villagers, 'Darling Arithmetic'

Darling Arithmetic.
Courtesy of the artist
Darling Arithmetic.

Villagers began as a lush one-man band with 2010's Becoming A Jackal, then morphed into an even more complex collaborative effort in time for 2013's {Awayland}, as Dublin singer-songwriter Conor O'Brien learned to work with a team he'd assembled. A natural progression would involve Villagers exploring that full-band dynamic further in the pursuit of higher orchestral peaks, but Darling Arithmetic finds O'Brien reversing course completely: He sings and plays every instrument himself, for an album that feels surprisingly muted.

Fortunately, that retreat from the lushness of {Awayland} leads to songs performed with intimacy and refreshing clarity. Each track isn't delivered at a whisper so much as a conversational murmur, with soft flourishes joining percussion that's mostly limited to the loping pitter-pat heard in "Courage" and elsewhere. O'Brien remains willing to ratchet up the drama, as "Hot Scary Summer" builds to something genuinely grand, but it's grandiosity manifested as a sweet slow burn.

O'Brien wisely keeps Darling Arithmetic's arrangements subtle and skeletal, giving each the space it needs in order to breathe, rest and seep under the skin. Never a bellower, he trusts his audience to stay fixed on his rich, lightly adorned voice and crafty but approachable lyricism. They've got good reason to do just that.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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