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First Listen: Villagers, 'Becoming A Jackal'

Listen to Becoming a Jackal, the debut album by the Irish folk-rock band Villagers, and it's hard to believe it's the work of just one guy. The young singer Conor O'Brien, who says he's been "terrified of bands" ever since the demise of his previous group, The Immediate, plays nearly everything on this incredibly expansive record. Becoming a Jackal, available here in its entirety until its release on June 8, has a huge, cinematic sound. It's brilliantly and richly orchestrated, complete with soaring string arrangements, piano runs and horns, and yet O'Brien makes it sound as warm and intimate as a lo-fi bedroom recording.

"We wanted to make it sound a bit like a Neil Young album," says O'Brien, who recorded Becoming a Jackal with engineer and co-producer Tommy McLaughlin. "Not to dress it up too much. Like someone is whispering in your ear, but also to get the epic-ness at times."

Beginning with the creepy "I Saw the Dead," Becoming a Jackal plows through a vast range of emotions and themes. Light, sweet pop sounds in songs such as "Pieces" and "The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)" are interwoven with darker, moodier themes of love, loss and death in the title track and "Twenty Seven Strangers," with affecting and beguiling results.

Comparisons will inevitably be made between Conor O'Brien of Villagers and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst -- not only because of the similarity in their names, but also for their similar voices and tentacles that reach back to shared heroes such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Robert Wyatt. But where Oberst's persona is wide-eyed and vulnerable, O'Brien's is brooding and elusive, making Becoming a Jackal a beautiful but emotionally and sonically complicated album. It's also one of the year's most captivating debuts.

Please leave your thoughts on Becoming a Jackal in the comments section below.

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Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.