Angel Olsen

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Half Way Home (2012), 7/10
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014), 6/10
My Woman (2016), 5/10
All Mirrors (2019), 5/10

Angel Olsen, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter who had worked with Will Oldham, debuted with the cassette Strange Cacti (2010).

Her trembling and howling tones of her voice, somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Edith Piaf, matured on Half Way Home (Bathetic, 2012). She can sing practically anything and turn it into an adventure, whether the slow-waltzing Safe In The Womb or the country & western lament Miranda. She rises over the flamenco guitar and maracas of The Sky Opened Up and plunges into the delicate Leonard Cohen-ian lullaby of You Are Song. She even transports the listener back into the Brill Building of the 1950s with the catchy The Waiting, and the shimmering melody of Free evokes the jangling folk-rock of the hippy era (and the coda has a vocal flight worthy of an opera soprano). The seven-minute Lonely Universe blends Chris Isaak's self-flagellation and a slow-motion version of the refrain of the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday.

Her single Sweet Dreams (2013) left behind the austere acoustic arrangements for an electric quasi-psychedelic rocking format.

Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar, 2014) was the rock'n'roll counterpart to the previous album's folk style. Standout Hi-Five sounds like a yodeling version of Norman Greenbaum's stomping Spirit In The Sky with the jug replaced by guitar fuzz. Forgiven/Forgotten even boasts the Velvet Underground's manic pounding beat. If High & Wild is a half-baked garage rave-up, the backing does benefit the solemn hymn-like crescendo of Dance Slow Decades. Not rocking at all, instead, is the seven-minute White Fire, similar in tone to Leonard Cohen's So Long Marianne, just more dejected and sedated; and Enemy is the sparest of acoustic ballads, and perhaps the emotional peak of the album. This was the typical "transitional" album.

My Woman (Jagjaguwar, 2016) She sounds like a second rate Kate Bush imitator when singing over the electronic arrangements of Intern, and like an aspiring soul singer in the sophisticated pop-jazz ballad Those Were The Days. Give it Up has a decent guitar riff but it gets diluted in a silly solo, and the other guitar-driven rocking song, Shut Up Kiss Me, sounds amateurish and incomplete. Her shouting in the psychedelic crescendo of Not Gonna Kill You mainly proves the distance that still separates her from the vocal power of a singer like Grace Slick. The two longer songs are rather ineffective: the eight-minute Sister is a long narrative with a nasty guitar solo but obviously can't compete with Neil Young's long rants, although it borrows the format. The seven-minute Woman is even more dependent on her vocal delivery because of the tedious electronic arrangement. It sounds like the idea was to make the album sound more professional (and a` la mode) but the result is exactly the opposite: much of this album sounds trivial and immature. The closing piano ballad Pops is totally pointless.

The musician of All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar, 2019) was hardly related to the artist of Half Way Home. Produced by John Congleton, the glossy production of mellotron, strings and loud percussion (arranged by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff) sounds like sheer overkill. A good example is What It Is, possibly the standout, that punches a potentially intriguing T.Rex strut with blasts of percussion and tornadoes of strings. This vice leads to the ridiculous magniloquence of the torch song Impasse and other embarrassing concoctions. The most confusing of all is probably All Mirrors, buried in whirling strings and pounding drums. Lark sounds like a collaboration between Stevie Nicks of the Fleetwood Mac and Kate Bush. Endgame is a smooth orchestral ballad in the vein of Burt Bacharach with brass arrangements by Nathaniel Walcott, besides the string arrangements of Ben Babbitt: at least this ballad doesn't pretend to be anything else. Obnoxious synths ruin the nostalgic moments: the catchy ditty Spring and the dreamy ditty Too Easy (which otherwise evokes the French ye-ye girls of Francoise Hardy's generation). The arrangements work only in a couple of songs: the electronic effects push the ethereal lullaby New Love Cassette into magical Enya territory; and Summer has the pace and the atmosphere of a western-movie Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

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