I’ve never been one to make best-of lists when it comes to music. I enjoy so much of what I hear that it’s difficult to pick favorites.
I can say it’s the best new album I’ve heard so far in this still-young year — and I fully expect to feel that way about it when this year is winding down.
“Surface Noise” is packed with 12 songs that explore love, loss, and the challenges of life with a casual brilliance about this album that makes it the best work this talented artist has produced so far.
The title in part seems in keeping with O’Connor’s modest, self-effacing personality, while also suggesting an homage to the Kiam Records Shop in Nyack, where she and spouse Amy Bezunartea sell vinyl albums — with their love-it-or-hate-it quality of pops and crackles, or surface noise — along with books and turquoise jewelry.
But don’t let the title fool you — this noise is heavenly.
The tunes are instantly accessible and memorable, with sharp, confident lyrics that O’Connor puts across well with her expressive voice.
Some are gems of the stripped-down, basic, singer-songwriter genre, while others are almost baroque, with stunning arrangements featuring beats that O’Connor created at home on a drum machine before adding in a live drummer, layered harmonies (all O’Connor, tastefully multitracked), and other effects.
The album’s first single, “Start Right Here,” is an absolute earworm. It’s a simple tune, propelled by a sinuous bass line provided by her friend James McNew of Yo La Tengo, who lends a YLT vibe to the proceedings while supporting and nurturing — rather than redirecting — O’Connor’s personal style. Drummer Jon Langmead provides a rock-solid beat throughout, while O’Connor provides the guitar.
“It’s a Lie,” which also features McNew on bass, would feel right at home in a mixtape of Yo La Tengo tunes, coming across like a loving homage to YLT’s idiosyncratic sound. It evokes YLT’s Georgia Hubley both in the dreamy way O’Connor’s voice is recorded and mixed and in Langmead’s solid, understated drumming.
Of the two other tracks that feature McNew’s bass, only one, “Tell Me What You Need,” has the relaxed confidence of a YLT slow-burner.
“Mountains,” the fourth McNew track, goes its own way, with a darker, more intensely defiant tone — verging on a snarl.
Tom Beaujour, another longtime collaborator and operator of Nuthouse Recording, where the album was made, provides guitar on half the tracks.
Check out these two tracks.
“Start Right Here”
“It’s a Lie”