Tara Jane O'Neil makes unsettling ambient lullabies for people who would otherwise hate ambient lullabies. Unlike such Prozac music -- featuring the soothing sounds of synthesizer effect no. 74 or a guitar-facing twit rapturously working his effects pedal -- Tara Jane O'Neil is D.I.Y. rock of choice for the defiantly introverted.
O'Neil earned her indie post-rock points by helping to invent it, playing with Rodan and Retsin and The Sonora Pine, even appearing in a movie about Louisville punks called Half-Cocked. This is her fourth solo album, though she's also appeared on other people's records, including Papa M's Whatever, Mortal and drumming on Sebadoh's Bakesale back in '94. For all that, she's also a painter of images that resemble her music: odd, exacting and weirdly intimate.
Another artist, modernist sculptor Louise Nevelson, said, "A whisper can be stronger, as an atom is stronger, than a whole mountain." Of her own work, Nevelson added, "True strength is delicate." And while some bear weight and others vaporize like half-glimpsed ghosts, O'Neil's best songs are like Nevelson's sculptures: delicate but not dainty. The surfaces of these songs are supple, with the structure slowly revealed, like bones beneath flesh. Safely sheltered in her painstaking constructions, O'Neil gradually builds intensity.
Like any good introvert, O'Neil plays most of the instruments herself -- her trademark banjo, as well as guitar, bass and others. Among the handful of collaborators, Nora Danielson's low, anguished violin stands out -- especially on the surprisingly catchy "Howl" -- divining a style somewhere between classical themes-and-variations and Appalachia-tinted choruses.
In keeping with this vaguely traditional sound, there're a lot of rocking, see-sawing rhythms on You Sound, Reflect, recalling the strong patterns and repetitions in old British and mountain ballads -- or maybe just the good old Velvet Underground. In these songs, there's the subtlest of changes as the repetition settles in disturbingly, as if it were always there.
O'Neil also unsettles with inverted arrangements: TJO's voice -- softly mouthing the melody -- floats placidly above, while the violin and electric guitar played at the bottom of their ranges sing out vivid harmonies. All of this is then undercut with a driving pace, as on "Take the Waking" and "Famous Yellow Belly."
There's great rock, too, in spirit if not volume: "Famous Yellow Belly" is my favorite, with its propulsive drumbeat. "A Snapshot" is well done, too, and could speak for whole TJO project, moving from serenade, to breath-catching crescendo, to a Sleater-Kinney-esque indictment/threat in which I think she's saying: "And this is how you lied to me ... And this is where you run from me."
Given O'Neil's reputation for sometimes meandering among her own subtleties, I personally liked that about two-thirds of the pieces are well-realized songs: gauzy gothic folk, mathy discombobulance or abstracted rock; the others are haunting but ephemeral, unresolving interludes, which don't quite satisfy but serve to shift the scene.
Rather than the hardy traditional music it alludes to or the in-the-know post-rock that's its peer, the moods on You Sound, Reflect are urgent yet austere within a self-sufficient world. Vocal intonations are new shapes in the clouds, an unsettling lyric a chilly shadow and each entering instrument a station of the sun. The finale is the disc's prettiest track: "Tea Is Better Than Poison," a sparse dusky melody with a golden banjo coda. Deep inside her creation, O'Neil sometimes speaks but always evokes.