REVIEW: Arun O’Connor — Songs from the Reading Room (LP)
The momentum within the underground Americana movement is getting too strong for anyone to slow down, and when listening to an immersive album like Songs from the Reading Room, this makes a whole lot of sense to a critic like myself. Songs from the Reading Room puts us right beside singer/songwriter Arun O’Connor for what feels like a journey to the center of his soul beset with traditionalist American folk-rock themes. There’s a countrified edge to this material, but make no mistake about it — this is not a Nashville-branded work of predictability and pomp by any creative measurement. On the contrary, songs like “Walk Away” and “When the Darkness Comes Around (Reprise)” were made for serious listeners almost exclusively, which isn’t often true of this kind of release.
“Weight of the World” and “Let Go of My Heart” put a lot of emphasis on tension, but their use of texture to frame a story is definitely something that caught my ear in the initial sit-down I had with Songs from the Reading Room. It’s a bit more conceptual than “When the Darkness Comes Around” or “Another Reminder,” but the lyrical premise of “Weight of the World” gives me a pretty thorough idea about what kind of poet we’re dealing with in O’Connor, who is reticent to go as deep as he does in this situation in other tracks in this same album. There’s still more to learn about him, and we’re going to get there through the breakdown of each track here.
“Star of Your Own Show,” “Games I Can’t Win,” and “Used” immediately felt like cornerstone songs of this tracklist to me, and yet they don’t reach out to us with the same kind of cutting panache that a piece like “The Truth” does. When he’s balladic, one could opine that O’Connor is even more scathing with his commentary than he would be in a typical scenario, and overall, I think he has more judgment in his tone than he does straight-up observation. This isn’t a bad thing though — from where I sit, it gives him more ability to be loose with the narratives in “When the Lights Go Down (In This Town)” and “Walk Away” than he would have had to begin with.
Songs from the Reading Room is a record that will probably take you a couple of full, proper listening sessions to fully appreciate, but in the realm of progressive country music coming out of the underground at the moment, you can do a lot worse than this ambitious debut offering. Arun O’Connor wears the look of a true country crooner really well here; it’s merely ironic that this material sits more on the folk side of the aesthetical spectrum than it does anywhere else. No matter what kind of labels you use to describe what this singer/songwriter is capable of issuing when he’s on a roll in the studio, Songs from the Reading Room is a quality listen, and one I plan on revisiting in the future.