CD Review of Underground by Marykate O’Neil
Marykate O’Neil: Underground
Recommended if you like
Carole King, Aimee Mann, Jill Sobule
Marykate O’Neil:

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

o who exactly is Marykate O’Neil? The quest for that elusive answer is chief among the reasons why O’Neil, a New England-bred singer/songwriter, has yet to make much of a dent in the public consciousness. That’s despite a track record that stretches back to the beginning of the millennium, one that includes a pair of albums which reflect an admirable pop pedigree and associations with such reliable rockers as Jill Sobule, Brad Jones, and Dennis Diken of the Smithereens.

Whatever the dilemma, it’s obviously unwarranted, as O’Neil’s newest effort proves so explicitly. While its title may be a sly reference to her standing below the surface, Underground ought to be the big breakthrough O’Neil has threatened to pull off for quite some time now. A record that revels in traditional pop trappings, its songs sound timeless from the get-go, bringing echoes of Carole King, Gerry Goffin and that long-ago era when the Brill Building asserted its influence on the musical charts. Indeed, in songs such as "Easy to Believe at First," "Mr. Friedman" and "Attention," O’Neil keeps her pop sensibilities front and center, bracing them with effusive hooks and a giddy school girl vocal that’s at once shy but suggestive. A capable songwriter with an ear towards tradition, she manages only one cover, a surging version of Joe Jackson’s "Different for Girls." Her interpretation finds an apt match with the rest of the material, so much so that she literally makes the song her own.

Truth be told, O’Neil can’t claim all the credit. Sobule, who’s assumed the role of her mentor of sorts since the very beginning, makes her presence known once again, sharing the bulk of the instrumental duties and co-writing several songs. Jones returns as well, and his signature permeates the disc as well. Still, that’s not to negate O’Neil’s dewy-eyed presence, a spunky stylistic stance that seems to make the album sound even better as it ambles towards its conclusion. If she seems to tread a bit too close to convention at times – making it difficult to perceive a persona inseparable from her template – her lyrics imbue more of a personal perspective. "Green Street" is an amiable invitation to rendezvous and reconnect, while "Attention" conveys a passionate plea for resuscitating a relationship that’s apparently suffered from indifference.

Coming quickly on the heels of mKULTRA, a six-song EP released in October ’08, Underground is rousing affirmation that O’Neil has indeed arrived. It’s clearly time for her to surface.

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