MAZ O’CONNOR – The Longing Kind (Restless Head RHCD 101)

MAZ O’CONNOR The Longing KindHer third album in four years, this is also the Barrow-in-Furness singer-songwriter’s first to comprise solely of self-penned, non-traditional material. It’s also a concept album of sorts in that, exploring the tensions and conflicts of a young woman living in London, it’s ordered like a three-act play, opening with songs of the uncertainty, confusion and displacement that ensue from being cut loose from the safe havens of education and family, continuing through imagined stories based on particular paintings and the way in which the subjects’ identities have been fixed by the artists, finally returning to reality with a newfound clarity and redefined sense of self.

Produced by Jim Moray, who also contributes an assortment of instruments, and featuring Beth Porter on cello, Matt Downer on double bass and Byrds legend Chris Hillman on pedal steel, the fingerpicked title track follows a brief instrumental intro, clearly nodding to such influences as Jackson C Frank, moving on to the leafy folk of ‘A Winter’s Blues’ which, with its circling guitar pattern, sounds like a sort of upbeat Nick Drake. Hillman is to the fore on ‘Crook of his Arm’, a lovely reminiscence of her father and his inability to keep her safe from the ways of the world in her determination to carve her path, while protective parent/ restless daughter themes also concern the frisky, percussion-driven ‘Mother Make My Bed’ featuring Nick Malcolm on trumpet.

Things slow down on the medieval hints of ‘Greenwood Side’, Millais’ Ophelia providing the impetus for the first of the painting songs, moving on to the piano-backed ‘Emma’ (other than the lyrical mention of being painted in blue, there’s no indication, on either the album or website, as to the source of the inspiration) and the cello accompanied ‘Jane Grey’, sung in the voice of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as Queen for just nine days, and inspired by the picture of her execution by Paul Delaroche. By contrast to these tragic heroines, the subject of the livelier strummed ‘Billy Waters’ (guessingly based on the painting by David Wilkie), again featuring Malcolm, is a one-legged black busker, who used to play violin to theatre-goers in the streets of London in the nineteenth century and, shortly before he died, was elected King of the Beggars in the parish of St. Giles.

Opening with the simple fingerpicked ‘Coming Back Around’, the third act rounds up proceedings with ‘A Quiet Word’ (a brass burnished restlessness/parting song which borrows its opening line from Macbeth), the traditional-hued ‘A Rose’ which highlights her soaring vocal range and, finally, returning home in the banjo-flecked ‘When The Whisky Runs Dry’, older and wiser with a bruised, but not regretful heart. Being honest, I don’t think this is the album to bring any major breakout success into the folk mainstream, but it will certainly delight her existing following and surely encourage curious newcomers to stay around to see where her journey takes her next.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.mazoconnor.com/

‘A Winter’s Blues’ – official video: