It is difficult to tally exactly how many albums of new material Tim O'Brien has released since first appearing as part of Hot Rize, the venerable bluegrass band experiencing a well-received resurgence. More than 20 by any count, 30-plus when one considers solo, duet and group offerings, including his most recent success as part of the Earls of Leicester.
Aside from a brief flirtation with the mainstream country music industry in the form of a Top 10 song with Kathy Mattea 25 years ago ("Battle Hymn of Love"), O'Brien has carved for himself a significant and independent niche within the Americana field, recording and performing music with few regards to genre: bluegrass, Celtic, folk, troubadour, old-time...when attending an O'Brien concert, one is never sure what type of music will be featured.
With "Pompadour" O'Brien continues his wide-ranging Americana journey. The majority of songs examine relationships - healthy, failing and indifferent - recorded in intimate circumstance with an expansive list of collaborators.
Originals of note include the soul-searching "Whatever Happened to Me" and the lyrically dynamic "I'm A Mess for You," a song that evokes both "Mr. Bojangles" and Joni Mitchell. A sense of transition is apparent, from the straightforwardness of "I Gotta Move" to the natural elegance of "The Water is Wise," a co-write with Sarah Jarosz.
Several of the tracks (all covers) have appeared as part of O'Brien's ongoing digital campaign, The Short Order Sessions. Of these, the Woody Guthrie via Billy Bragg track "Go Down to the River" and Dan Reeder's "Tulips on the Table" are strongest, although there is something to be said for "Ditty Boy Twang," an energetic, effusive jam.
While many O'Brien albums are more homogeneous than "Pompadour," the diversity of this latest release will appeal to those with broad palates: capturing the energy of spontaneous recording sessions with friends, "Pompadour's" 11 tracks offer insight into the increasingly elaborate spectrum of O'Brien's interests. Appalachian traditions abut playful, jazz-tinged ruminations ("Pompadour"), Indian sounds ("Snake Basket") and energetic slices of R&B-infused, British traditional folk stylings (James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" is given a bit of Fairport Convention flavoring along with no shortage of British imagery).
Some will consider, perhaps justifiably, "Pompadour" too eclectic. Each track has that distinctive O'Brien approach, one tied to the traditions of folk music; this time out, he is casting a bit further afield, exploring unexpected elements, rather successfully.