Each of O'Brien's solo albums has a distinctive identity. Many have specific themes, including Red on Blonde, an insightful collection of Bob Dylan compositions, and his Grammy-winning celebration of Appalachian music and its Celtic roots, Fiddler's Green. So it is with Pompadour, or at least most of it.
"It's kind of a breakup record," O'Brien says. "I separated from my wife four years ago and got divorced a year after that. So there's a breakup, an assessment and ultimately delight at the end."
What separates Pompadour from his previous thematic albums? O'Brien answers by looking back to his first nationally released album. "When I did Hard Year Blues, a friend said, ‘This is kind of like a Chinese menu; there are so many options here. What's the theme?' It was really eclectic. Now, with Pompadour, I've sort of melded things together, like the flavors in a stew.”
That's an astute observation. Pompadour swirls together bits of bluegrass, deep-roots Appalachian music, field hollers, old-school rock 'n' roll, traditional jazz and even James Brownian funk. The same applies to the perspectives from which O'Brien addresses the central theme. The spare lyrics of "I Gotta
Move" and use of everyday images on "I'm A Mess For You" imply rather than spell out a story of loss and then redemption. A rock steady groove drives the classic trope of asking a doctor for a cure to heartache on "Give Me A Little Somethin' Take Her Off My Mind."
But there's also celebration on Pompadour. "Get Up Offa That Thing" spells out the real prescription for curing the blues: "Dance! You'll feel better," O'Brien insists while an improbable instrumentation of acoustic bass, guitar, banjo and just a bit of organ churns out an irresistible beat. His original title track suggests that fate just might make your day by arranging your hair perfectly as you wake up and take that first look in the mirror. The closing track "The Water Is Wise," a co-write by O'Brien and Sarah Jarosz, channels life's currents into a stream of acceptance and surrender.
The seeds of Pompadour took root about three years ago when O'Brien welcomed some traveling colleagues to Nashville. "Gerry Paul is a guitarist from Wellington, New Zealand, and Trevor Hutchinson is a bassist from Dublin, Ireland," O'Brien says. "We grabbed a couple of days and recorded. We meant to tour together behind this recording, but we’re all so busy with our other projects. The tracks sat around a while before I started finishing them on my own. Then on the first of this year, my partner Jan and I made a leap, and launched Short Order Sessions (SOS) to put some of this stuff out while I was touring with Hot Rize.”