Fossils finds singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan stepping away from the progressive bluegrass sensibility of her band Crooked Still. Despite the nod to the past in the album’s title, O’Donovan eschews the presumed authenticity of folk and Americana music. However, she fails to establish a broader sonic palette, instead settling for burnished, almost rote arrangements that wobble like faulty compass needles between pop-country and singer-songwriter—pleasant but lacking tension and contrast.
Devoid of rough edges, or edges of any kind, the album buckles under its own disarming sincerity. The characters in Fossils are average and overly familiar in their sensuality and restlessness, their loves and desperations. The strangeness of the jazzy opening guitar on the standout “Beekeeper” gets swallowed up in the over-instrumentation of drums, piano, pedal steel, and strings that join O’Donovan’s agile guitar-picking. A long bridge that strips the song down to its bones, leaving just heavy toms, a snarling guitar, and O’Donovan’s vocals, gives us a glimpse of a different project, one in which the singer’s voice maintains its only occasional declarative swiftness and the arrangements contain more than a dash of unexpected color. But Fossils never gives us the violence and character of indiscipline, only circumspect drums and restrained pedal steel playing out comfortable motifs.
There are successful moments on the album, especially toward the end: the opening of “Glowing Heart” is austere and just melancholy enough to provide a proper setting for the quasi-religious lyrics (“Would the ripples in the water taste like wine”), and the closing, shivering violins split the grain of the song like a slow ax; a guitar that could have been ripped from a Johnny Cash song flickers in and out of “Lay My Burden Down” and “I’m Alone”; and the slow porch-stomp of “Oh, Mama” provides a well-worn cradle for O’Donovan’s mournful lullaby. O’Donovan delivers her vocal turns with tenderness and distinction, and Krauss rightly recognized O’Donovan’s strength as a songwriter when she covered “Lay My Burden Down” on 2011’s Paper Airplane.
Producer Tucker Martine—who’s worked with the Decemberists and produced Laura Veirs’s entire catalogue—adds some fine touches, like the horns on “Thursday’s Child” and the digital hiccup preceding “I’m Alone,” but he usually excels at highlighting an artist’s individuality, not obscuring it. The polished sound, when combined with O’Donovan’s occasionally wispy vocals and recessed guitar, fails to propel the album. It lacks both weight and momentum, or at least enough mood to set Fossils apart.