Friday, September 19, 2014

Required Listening: Angel Olsen

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: September 19th, 2014

I discovered Angel Olsen in a peculiar, almost serendipitous way. I had been struggling to nap after work one afternoon, and thought it’d be helpful to listen to something relaxing, soporific even, something to lull me into an easy sleep. I opened up my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed, and in YouTube’s “Recommended” section was a thumbnail for thisvideo. She seems like a pretty voice, I thought.

But instead of singing me a lullaby, Angel Olsen had me bewitched. I lay on my back, nearly catatonic, the lights out, staring at the ceiling fan as it whirred overhead, mesmerized by the sweet pluck and strum of Angel’s old, shabby guitar and by her truly singular voice – performing in this video the song “Some Things Cosmic,” Olsen goes seamlessly from a gentle lilt to an eerily ghostlike wail as she sings, “I’ve felt my soul/Rise up from my body/Like the way a soul can rise/When it dies in the light.” Needless to say, I couldn’t fall asleep; instead, I felt something akin to an out-of-body experience, and was nervous about my soul getting caught in the ceiling fan.

To call Angel Olsen a folk singer would be misleading. She is doubtless a singer steeped in an American folk tradition, but she’s also so much more than just a Joan Baez or Patsy Cline imitator. She is a musician through and through. Just listen to the brief but punchy garage-jam “Forgiven/Forgotten”, then the harrowing ballad of crime and betrayal “Miranda”, then the slick, bouncy sing-along “Hi-Five” for proof that Angel Olsen is a folky “singer-songwriter” type who’s also capable musically of almost anything.

To date, Olsen’s catalogue consists of two almost flawless full-length LPs, Half Way Home (2012) and Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), and a quiet but really quite stunning EP called Strange Cacti (2010). If you sit down for a couple hours and listen to each album in its proper chronology, you witness not only the growth and formation of a great musician but Olsen’s uncanny ability to shape-shift musically. From the Lennon/McCartney-esque songster of “The Waiting” - “I wasted time to ponder/Here I am now all Alice in wonder…” – through to the sighing matador of “The Sky Opened Up,” with its Flamenco-inflected admonition “No One Will Ever Be You For Yourself,” to the solipsistic narrator of“White Fire,” a cold, disquieting, all-too-cerebral song that would have given even Samuel Beckett the shivers: “I walk back in the night alone, got caught up in my song/Forgot where I was sleeping, none of the lights were on/I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself, it all began to hurt,” Angel Olsen morphs effortlessly, and at will, into sonic representations of the characters her songs so precisely describe.

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