Monday, June 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1014: Angel Olsen

I’m on holidays this week and trying to enjoy every minute of it. But I’m not trying too hard. Trying too hard to enjoy yourself is like paddling against the current; you’re just gonna get tired before you ever get far enough out to make a difference.

Instead, you gotta relax and let that free time wash over you. Let it lift you up, like the tide coming in.

Disc 1014 is…Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Artist: Angel Olsen

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? This drawing made me think of a bunch of women in 1920s bathing suits. According to the liner notes, the artist is Kreh Mellick. I could impress you all by looking up information to share about Kreh Mellick, but I’m just not keen enough on this picture to bother.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review for Angel Olsen’ 2016 “My Woman” and later bought the album. I liked it a lot, and it inspired me to drill back through her earlier work.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have all three of Angel Olsen’s full length studio albums (I don’t waste time once I like an artist). All of them are excellent, with very little to separate them. So much so I spent a while to just listen to the other two and have them fresh in my head before I decided. After all this groundwork, I’m going to say “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is the best of the bunch.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Take a splash of Leonard Cohen, a dash of Patti Smith and a little Liz Phair, and give them all the singing voice of a sixties pop star, and you’ve got something approximating the brilliance that is Angel Olsen.

After releasing the artfully understated alt-folk album “Half Way Home” in 2012, Olsen begins to experiment in earnest with her sound on her sophomore effort, “Burn Your Fire…” adding more rock elements and an almost symphonic sound that provides a nice foil to lyrics that are introspective and insightful.

This is a record that summons up a ball of moody darkness, fully immerses you in it, and then fires complex soundscapes across it to give all that negative space purpose. The result is a thick, echoing sound, across which Olsen’s high, evocative vocals cut through, giving us comfort. The lyrics may be more about doubt than certainty, but sometimes just knowing someone else is out there doubting is certainty enough.

The album’s opening track introduces this concept immediately. Even the song title, “Unfucktheworld,” suggests the combined concept of something that is wrong, but also that it can be fixed. While “Unfucktheworld” could easily be a larger geopolitical message, with Olsen’s intimate delivery, minor key and single resonant acoustic guitar, it feels much more intensely personal. Olsen evokes early Liz Phair here, albeit with more quaver and power in her voice. When she sings “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end” she sounds like a widowed bird, beautiful and tragic as it sings its grief.

This is immediately followed by the fuzz-rocked “Forgiven/Forgotten,” a rock anthem that channels the early sixties and then washes it in the dirty water of early nineties grunge. Olsen sings “I don’t know anything” over and over with a desperate questing urgency that shows that while she may be lost, she’s not giving up.

With its haunting guitar riff, and descending melody “White Fire” reminded me strongly of Leonard Cohen around his “Songs of Love and Hate” period; stark and introspective. Here, Olsen shows her vocal acumen through restraint, singing in a half-whisper, low and breathy and full of doubt.

A lot of the songs on “Burn Your Fire…” have simple guitar riffs that would be nothing notable on their own, but Olsen knows how to combine them with bass, a bit of feedback and a vocal style that fills already thoughtful lyrics with even more gravitas.

Halfway through the album, “Lights Out” is the hopeful anthem you need to sustain your spirits for the rest of the journey; a shaft of light into the darkness right when you aren’t sure which way to turn. This is a song about putting aside your self-loathing, finding whatever strength you’ve got left, and building around it. Or as Olsen sings it:

“Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out, it shines
Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.”

Lights Out” is quiet in places, but this quiet deliberate pace only serves to further highlight the inspirational message as Olsen’s voice climbs up the melody, strong and vulnerable.

This theme is revisited at the end of the record with “Windows,” an uplifting number of hope and support. Olsen’s vocals are ethereal and haunting as she gently chides us to open a window sometime, repeating the simple and insistent question “what’s so wrong with the light?” until you feel foolish that you ever chose the dark in the first place.

I often think that having a positive outlook is a lot like choosing to turn the light on before finding your way around a room. With the lights on, all the furniture becomes obvious and easy to navigate around. Things you are looking for are easily found. Leave that light off, and you will instead stumble into things in the dark, skinning your knees, and grope blindly for things that are already easily within reach.

You can’t make people turn on that light and you shouldn’t judge those that haven’t done it too harshly, because it’s a hard thing to do. I know because I’ve lived with it off too, and finding that damned light switch can be the hardest search of all. I’m not sure you can teach people to find it, but a song like “Windows” is about as good a clue as you’ll find. Just open your heart and let Angel Olsen’s voice guide you there. Such is the power of great music.

“Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is a subtle record that requires a close listen. If you want to have music to gab over while you play Parcheesi this isn’t the album for you. Instead do yourself a favour, and give this one a listen on headphones in a darkened room. Then, get up, let in the light, and get on with your day.

Best tracks: Unfucktheworld, Forgiven/Forgotten, High & Wild, Lights Out, Stars, Windows

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