It’s a balmy evening outside as Irish indie-rock band Villagers step onto the stage at Edinburgh’s Leith Theatre – fitting maybe for a band known for songs that though sometimes introspective and uncomfortable, always have an underlying soothing nature. The five-piece band, now playing their fourth studio album The Art Of Pretending To Swim for the first time, are welcomed warmly by a good-sized crowd of varying ages, which is maybe testament to the wide appeal of the songs of Dublin singer/songwriter Conor O’Brien, who fronts the band, his trademark slightly-warbling vocals possibly their most distinguishing characteristic.
If not that, then O’Brien’s long-acknowledged songcraft comes a close second – he was awarded a coveted Ivor Novello award for ‘Best Song Musically & Lyrically’ for Becoming a Jackal, from their second album, and their follow-up album Awayland was their second Mercury Prize nomination, Conor O’Brien was later awarded the Ivor Novello Album Award for Darling Arithmetic, their third collection.
With their most popular tracks making an appearance as the show progresses, there’s a good-natured atmosphere abroad, which O’Brien reciprocates with occasional breezy banter, although somewhat wrong-footing us by announcing, around the 50-minute mark, that ‘this is our last one’, repeating that claim some songs later, with, it turned out, a few still to spare, which of course was fine – they do go down very easily. A high point was their (maybe surprising) version of Elvis Presley’s early-seventies hit The Wonder of You, played with some window-rattling force, and the poignant Nothing Arrived. Newer tracks such as A Trick of the Light and opener Again had a freshness and richness about them, and O’Brien’s close-to-the-mic delivery makes them seem very personal (an unassuming communicator, his careful mic-technique was notable, as was the occasional finger in the air to reinforce a lyrical point).
Recalling Belle & Sebastian or Prefab Sprout, at each song’s heart is a catchy pop melody, sung in a mellow style with thoughtful or self-doubting lyrics, and more expansive musical passages here and there that give vent to the group’s inventive streak, allowing O’Brien to concentrate on his rapid fingerpicking, or his flugelhorn (and for Fool, solo piano). It’s here that the group is musically most interesting, allowing the electronic textures to find their space, also when they appear the most engaged with each other, hinting maybe that in future releases they are capable of proving more exploratory, and could take the repertoire outside conventional song.
For now though, leaving us happily unchallenged, the night served as a reminder of the beauty of the well-turned 3-minute pop melody, which in Villagers’ hands, is a reassuring thing.
[Part of the Edinburgh International Festival‘s contemporary music programme]