So, listen. I had been writing for a website on and off for five years for little to no compensation. I just received word that they are ceasing to be and I don’t wish to see all of my writings disappear. Therefore, I will be dispersing the pieces all willy nilly across WordPress. The first entry is a series of reviews I have written about indie singer-songwriter Angel Olsen.
Strange Cacti opens like the beginning of a dream. Local folk artist Angel Olsen‘s voice joins the harp-like finger-picking and it is haunting and arresting. It pierces the din of the reverb-heavy recording with captivating precision. Her heart is clearly on her sleeve and slipping down to the floor. With each track, we are allowed a glimpse into a world of heartbreak and honesty, confessions from a journal set to music and shared with whoever dares to hear them. Each song is stripped down to the barest essentials: a woman, her guitar, and her soul. Her voice quivers on occasion, succumbing to the emotion and showing her vulnerability. The first five songs tell the tale of a woman wronged but with the closer, “Creator, Destroyer”, at last imbues our protagonist with the strength to seek answers for why she was so easily cast aside and confess her hurt to the one responsible. Anyone that has ever been dealt betrayal at the cold hand of a loved one will find a part of themselves in this EP that maybe they aren’t so eager to revisit. Olsen has captured that uncomfortable feeling beautifully in wax and it sends shivers down the listener’s spine. Allow yourself to get lost in the moment and marvel at Olsen’s craftsmanship.
Coming off of her phenomenal debut EP, Strange Cacti, Angel Olsen’s first LP has some lofty expectations to live up to. The album, titled Half Way Home, is a far more diverse effort than the EP, which is to be expected when extending out to a full-length. If the record is any indication of the woman, Olsen is an old soul. At the very least, her songs are informed from an era long before her time. A track that has been circulation on the web a while is “The Waiting”, a reasonable request for some effort from the other half of the relationship, all the while realizing that could be the proverbial long wait for a train that never comes. Sometimes a lady needs to be wooed a bit and for the man “to be the one to call”. “Lonely Universe” is a poignant seven-plus minute cautionary tale of how one’s existence can be full of regret when they don’t make the first step toward going after what/who they want, to not just dream but visualize and achieve.
Another familiar track, “Always Half Strange”, keeps its original simple but effective approach with Olsen’s trademark yodel in full throat. “You Are Song” keeps things stripped down and lovely. “Miranda Rights Revisited” is a country parable with storytelling reminiscent of Johnny Cash, a tale of love versus duty and Olsen’s voice lends the conflict its proper gravitas. As a counter-point to the rest of her work thus far, “Free” is the album’s most soaring and wonderful declaration of, and belief in, love. Olsen’s strength has generally been keeping things uncomplicated in arrangement, creating the necessary intimacy needed for the listener to focus on every somber syllable. But with “Free” and its sixties pop arrangement, she actually heightens the emotional tether and reaches a goosebump-inducing fever pitch. To put a final eclectic stamp on the album, Half Way Home closes with an R&B ballad, “Tiniest Seed”, complete with Cropper-esque guitars. With this debut album, Angel Olsen cements a reputation as a skilled and soulful siren with heartstring-tugging songs.
Angel Olsen is magic. Her performances are spellbinding and her onstage banter is bewitching, if not awkward and entirely preoccupied with Twix. Having spent the last few years in Chicago, Olsen has gained popularity swiftly. This year, she scored a coveted slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Alas, her time in the Windy City is coming to a close as she embarks on the next stage of her rapidly ascending career.
The first stop on her current tour was essentially her farewell to the city at Lincoln Hall. As she and her band took stage, you could tell that she was amongst friends in the intimate setting of the extremely clear sounding venue. The set began with, perhaps, the best track off of her one and only LP, last year’s Half Way Home. “Free” is just one example of how she has grown as a songwriter since her absolute heartbreaker of a debut EP, Strange Cacti. Those releases, from Bathetic Records, are vastly different. The EP is extremely spartan as the performances contain nothing more than Olsen’s voice and finger-picked guitar played in what sounded like an abandoned church. The LP explored some blues aspects and had a much improved fidelity.
In addition to her charmingly uncomfortable anecdotes about Neil Young’s On the Beach and a couple in the park “devouring tacos”, she is an adept storyteller as is evidenced on “Miranda”. The concert finished up with Olsen sans backing band. Admittedly “killing time” between songs, you could tell that some people didn’t quite understand what was going on as she occasionally went into hysterics, struggling to compose herself. When she did, she gave the crowd what they wanted, “Creator, Destroyer” but had to finish with a different number because she didn’t want to go out on that note. The song itself is amazing but the tone of it being the finale would have severely undercut the overall performance.
The show consisted largely of new songs that have been recorded and due to be released on Jagjaguwar, to whom she has recently signed, as well as the A-side to her most rocking release to date, “Sleepwalker”. The earlier songs were sad and sometimes angry whereas there is an immense effulgence to the new batch. Her talent knows no limits and no genre can contain her. The one thing in common with all of her songs is that her heart stays adorned on her sleeve with a Twix hanging out of the jacket pocket. Olsen may have outgrown our fair city but she is certainly welcome back whenever she likes.
After writing three complementary reviews, superlatives about songstress Angel Olsen are running short. Not that they aren’t deserving but the constant gushing about how talented Olsen is probably doesn’t come across as terribly interesting. Well, sorry, but she’s done it again. With already a stunning EP and outstanding full-length to her credit, Olsen manages to outdo herself. With her first release, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, on new label Jagjaguwar, Olsen serves up her most diverse work to-date.
Familiar folk territory is where Olsen has made her bones and is still a big part of the record. But it’s the translation of her folk sensibilities to a more rock milieu that prove to be even more remarkable.”Forgiven/Forgotten” is elevated garage rock tinged with sweetness. “Stars” packs a pair of powerful crescendos where her band swells and Olsen sings in self-harmony. The first peak at the 1:12 mark is goosebump-inducing.
Not that Olsen has suddenly become a garage punk. The softer side rears its beautiful head all over the album. Tracks like the evocative “White Fire” and “Unfucktheworld” carry the acoustic torch. “Lights Out” and “Dance Slow Decades” are empirically entrancing tracks that remind favorably of Marianne Faithfull. Remember the goosebumps from earlier? They recur at the first hint of Olsen’s voice on the record’s denouement, “Windows”. A more gorgeous song simply doesn’t exist. The music puts a figurative spotlight on its creator. Her voice comes across gentle and yet powerful, a beam of luminescence that answers the track’s pressing question, “What so wrong with the light?”. Not a damned thing.
There it is, the first entry. Hope you enjoyed.