Singer-songwriter Edward O’Connell released his debut album in 2010 to unanimous approval from power pop/retro pop aficionados. As for the world at large, the album did indeed remain ‘Our Little Secret’. While all of the influences were worn blatantly upon his sleeve – literally, too: the front cover parodied Nick Lowe’s ‘Jesus of Cool’, the rear paid a gentler homage to Tom Petty’s ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ – O’Connell’s gift for melody shone brightly through each of the album’s songs and the love for his forebears couldn’t be any more flattering.
A couple of years passed and it almost began to feel as if Edward O’Connell was to be one of the many great artists who left us one great album before disappearing. Then, in the summer of 2014 – without a word – a second album appeared. Are there any big surprises with regard to his ‘Vanishing Act’? When creating this follow up, did Edward throw a few more influences into the mix? In short, no. But then, his original set of influences – Petty, Lowe, Elvis Costello and a dose of miscellaneous pop for good measure – provided so much strong inspiration, to mess with such a winning formula would be somewhat unnecessary. If anything, it seems that those years of radio silence were used wisely, with O’Connell honing his next batch of songs until they were as close to perfection as possible.
Among the album’s strongest cuts, ‘Severance Kiss’ blends a sun-filled Californian jangle against a sneering Costello-esque lyric. A strong acoustic guitar line paves the way, setting the rhythm before the rest of the band join in on a fantastic tune. The electric guitar part brings a crisp and clean melody, over which O’Connell throws out some twisted lines like “holy smoke through the crack / took the steps, broke someone’s back” and “you were uncovered drunk in bed / next to your lover’s shrunken head” which seem at odds with the upbeat melodies. The standard pop/rock arrangement takes a different turn for the middle eight, dropping into something slightly psychedelic, woozy and waltzy, making the musical structure seem especially complete. In terms of themes of guilt and revenge, Elvis may well have been more heavy-handed (both in terms of sneer and syllables), but that doesn’t necessarily mean the results would actually be improved. ‘Same Old Faces’ begins strongly with a tough electric guitar tackling a country rock riff – somewhat similar in tone to Sheryl Crow’s ‘If It Makes You Happy’ – before dropping back into a solid mid paced tune that pulls obvious influence from Tom Petty mixed with a dashes of Uncle Tupelo. Edward’s distinctive and naturalistic vocal – often somewhere near Pete Droge territory – is hugely melodic, especially when pitched against a second harmony. Somewhere in the back, an organ fills spaces in the manner of Benmont Tench and occasional brass boosts the already great arrangement, all before a rock ‘n’ roll tinged guitar solo puts the proverbial icing on the cake. This is terrific – the kind of arrangement that O’Connell hinted at on his debut now coming to fruition. Despite such great band work, though, it’s the tune’s simplicity providing its real strength – great rhythm guitar work and a strong vocal remain at the front at all times, suggesting that it would hold up in a solo acoustic recording. O’Connell knows – as well as any good singer-songwriter should – you can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing if the lyrics and melody don’t stand up.
A quiet pairing, ‘Last To Leave’ and the title cut explore a slightly more sixties vibe than a lot of O’Connell’s other material. While ‘Last To Leave’ plays host to a misjudged solo that sounds as if it were played on a melodica, the rest of the track is just lovely, placing minimal percussion with acoustic guitars and a ringing twelve stringed electric, essentially create something that could nestle amongst the best tunes on The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’, stylistically speaking. The string-backed waltz of the title cut really pulls at the heartstrings with a very familiar melody and soft vocal. As with some of the other material here, the core of what made ‘Our Little Secret’ so appealing still remains, with O’Connell’s voice sounding particularly fine in the process, but time, experience and a (presumably) bigger budget gives this tune the kind of send off that his material has always deserved.
Tapping into a more sentimental mood, ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ deals with optimism, finding love and happiness in the lottery of life. While never as sappy as the previous album’s ‘I Want To Kiss You’ or direct as ‘With This Ring’, the strength in the song writing shines through even when dealing with such a well worn subject, while musically, everything comes with a near faultless backdrop. Yes, it’s largely inspired by the composer’s key influences once again, but it is never the worse for that as O’Connell’s crack backing band really delivers throughout. The bass anchors a twin set of chiming guitars, the drums approach things in a very measured style, while a lead guitar break offers a selection of soaring notes before breaking into something a little busier, filling a half dozen or so bars in a focused and classy manner. ‘I’m The Man’ (surprisingly not a Joe Jackson cover) finds O’Connell delving into country rock more obviously than ever before. His friendly, low-key voice is joined by a world of acoustic guitars and an occasional steel guitar, while a banjo beavers away in the left speaker channel. A sly humour means that this number comes with a few country music clichés of relationship mangling and matricide above the syrupy steels, but it’s all in fun…and the results are surprisingly catchy.
‘My Dumb Luck’ brings two and a half minutes of blatant Wilbury love, complete with a barrage of slide guitars worthy of George Harrison, some great harmonies and O’Connell’s typical off-centre gift with a lyric – potentially the strongest track for first time listeners. ‘What Have You Done’, meanwhile, is an understated and questioning affair, taking O’Connell’s trademark sound, slowing it down just a touch for that all-important extra sense of sadness before peppering it with an understated brass flourish and the chipper ‘Every Precious Day’ brings most of the artist’s best traits to the fore, resulting in something summery. Again, the band members sound like old pros and in terms of adult pop/rock, this is near impossible to dislike.
After the release of his debut album, O’Connell referenced Brian Wilson when he referred to the recording as “a cork on the ocean”, a tiny microcosm in a world of music just waiting to be discovered. Second time around, with twelve songs and not a weak offering among them, his cork is now gold-plated and awaiting a bigger audience. If you a have a love for almost timeless pop, ‘Vanishing Act’ really needs to be somewhere on your radar.