TJO, "Dispatches from the Drift"
As alluded to in its title, Dispatches from the Drift is something of an accidental album, as it is a collection of keyboard improvisations that Tara Jane O'Neil informally recorded during the pandemic lockdown that were never intended for release. In fact, many were casually recorded on her phone and most "were promptly forgotten," but O'Neil happened to stumble back upon them while digging around for fragments of inspiration that could blossom into fully formed songs. These are not the ones met that criteria. but they amount to something similarly wonderful. As O'Neil herself puts it, these pieces are the ones that "were not looking for a form or seeking to be known," so she decided to present them as they were without further polishing or embellishment ("complete, traveling pieces that resolve or simply end"). In lesser hands, such an album would feel like a series of unfinished sketches, but O'Neil's instincts regarding this experiment are remarkably unerring. For the most part, the "keyboard improvisations" origin ensures that the album tends to linger in pleasantly blurred "ambient" territory, but there are quite a few striking surprises lurking here too (some very "dreampop" and some considerably more outr√©). The entire album is quite a leftfield delight though, as it feels every bit as strong as O'Neil's more formal work. Her inspiration simply took a different shape this time around.
The album unexpectedly opens with a tenderly lovely piece that feels like a great would-be single, as the watery, quavering arpeggios and hushed vocals of "A Sunday 2020" feel plucked from a great This Mortal Coil album. No other piece on the album revisits that particular territory, which is not surprising, as O'Neil notes that it is the one exception where she embellished the original take (with some subtle guitar). She opted to include it anyway, however, as both the vocals and the keyboard part were improvised enough to give it thematic consistency with the rest of the pieces. It also highlights an endearing thread that runs through the album, as Dispatches from the Drift seamlessly mingles warm nostalgia for a particular era of music with contemporary flourishes and a dreamlike timelessness that make everything feel fresh and pleasantly unfamiliar. Moreover, O'Neil is impressively freewheeling in her stylistic inspirations. Sometimes the album sounds like a lost recording from Eno's Apollo sessions, while other times it resembles one of Warren Defever's teenage tapes, an out-of-phase accordion drone piece, a prog-minded bagpipe collective, or a traditional folk ensemble experimenting with Slowdive's gear. In every case, the results are invariably compelling. To my ears, the strongest piece is "Wind With Dog," which is a wonderfully woozy and bittersweetly gorgeous feast of dancing, quivering melodies and ghostly overtones. Elsewhere, O'Neil channels squirming heavy psych drones ("It's Been A Long Time"), a tropical steel drum band trying their hand at ceremonial trance music ("Ventura Tuesday"), and something akin to a stark, tremelo-heavy cover of a lovesick torch song. Naturally, there is an informality and unpredictably loose structure to all of these pieces given their spontaneous origins, but that intimate, imperfect, and searching feel generally suits them just fine. And sometimes I am even ambushed by something that feels like a wonderful premeditated set piece, such as when a haze of decaying notes forms a complex swirl of oscillations. The beauty of the album is that none of those cool textural or harmonic surprises here were planned, as O‚ÄôNeil essentially tricked herself into approaching music in an entirely different and instinctual way and plenty of happy accidents ensued. In some ways, that approach makes it hard to point to any individual piece as a fully articulated and focused glimpse of perfection, but the album's warmly beautiful soft-focus mood and unexpected twists and turns add up to an unusually inspired, lovely, and immersive whole.
Samples can be found here.