Monday, February 24, 2014

album review: 'burn your fire for no witness' by angel olsen

Before we begin, let me share with you something that's fairly common to all music nerds, including myself: we have a strong sense of history. We've often built ourselves a stored back catalog of music from the past that we like to revisit or hold up as classics, and nothing gives most music nerds more pleasure than finding ways of linking the music of the past to the music of today. And while that can make some music nerds a little insufferable - and I count myself among that number on occasions - it can be rewarding to trace the lineage of a song or an artist, especially when that artist doesn't sound distinctly modern.

So to indulge that vice of mine, let's talk a bit about Angel Olsen. An indie folk singer-songwriter, she burst onto the scene in 2012 with Half Way Home, a debut album I liked but never quite loved. I've mentioned often I'm not a fan of white guys with acoustic guitars, and I often hold the fairer sex under the same umbrella. What made Angel Olsen stand out most was her voice, as it was very reminiscent (for me at least) of traditional country singers from the 50s and 60s, most notably Patsy Cline. It was emotive and powerful and had a great wounded vulnerability that was well-balanced against her impressive stage presence, and it was really quite compelling - almost enough to make you overlook the fact that the instrumentation wasn't anything stellar or that the lyrics were only really passable at best, pretty but not exactly substantial or powerful on their own. Sure, they supported her vocal style well, but if we want to draw a Patsy Cline comparison, she's not as good of a songwriter as Willie Nelson. On top of that, there were moments where I felt Angel Olsen might have oversold her vocals a little bit - she never engaged in the histrionics that annoy me with some vocally talented indie folk singers, but there were moments that definitely lacked subtlety.

So when early buzz was suggesting her newest album Burn Your Fire For No Witness was going in a rougher, more upbeat direction, I was definitely interested. I wasn't sure how good it would sound, but a lack of memorable melodies was a problem with the last album and now that she was on a new label, maybe it would give her instrumentation more of a kick. So how did it go?

Ehh... to be honest, this record is, like its predecessor, good - but not great. And the really frustrating part is how it should have been so much better than it is, because there were choices made in the production and sound of this record that don't play to Angel Olsen's strengths as a performer, and you really can't excuse that.

So let's start with the one element that I found worked the best - the lyrics and songwriting. Now, I'm not going to go on record and say Angel Olsen is a great songwriter, but on an album about complicated or failing relationships and finding one's self-esteem, she's working in her wheelhouse and it's a good fit for her. The album thematically explores her progression from desperate loneliness to discovering her confidence and finally trying to help a old partner climb out of his depression. And there's some solid texture and detail to the lyrics that does give them more emotional payoff than her last album, which I definitely liked. And it helps the progression and flow to this album that there is a narrative arc, and while it's within convention and the technical songwriting is exactly what you'd expect from an Angel Olsen record - cryptic, exposed, never striking directly but sketching an emotional picture - it works here.

And you know, the rougher instrumentation was a welcome shift for her. Even though I did find the guitar lines lacking in interesting melodies or real force, they had some garage rock-inspired sizzle and smolder that I did like, especially on one of my favourite tracks 'Hi-Five', even if I found any of the bass or percussion not particularly impressive. And the album does manage to to build a few good crescendos, especially on 'Dance Slow Decades', arguably the best song on the album. But it's in the instrumentation that we start to see the first problems, because while there's more energy, it doesn't really build to a real focused fire. And that's before we get to the slower tracks, which barely have any fire or presence outside of Angel Olsen herself. And coupled with the lack of good hooks or strong melodies, it doesn't exactly help the album's staying power.

Now this could be redeemed if Angel Olsen managed to back her lyrics and rougher instrumentation with some fire of her own - and this is where we have to tackle the really big creative misstep on this album. See, when you have a force of emotive personality like Angel Olsen and you have songs that require real anger and curdled frustration, you want to support her in the mix, you want to encourage that explosive fire. Instead, the production shoves her midway to the back and buries her emotive texture under a lo-fi microphone. And while I get that choice on a sonic level when it comes to indie rock, I also get the impression that Angel Olsen made a conscious choice to tune back some of her more exaggerated vocals from her first record and go for a more subtle emotional performance. Which would be fine and great if her voice was positioned properly in the mix, because by opting for rougher vocal production, you lose the subtlety in the fuzz and her emotional presence is a lot weaker as a result. 

In other words, Angel Olsen isn't a Lydia Loveless - she's not a firespitter, she's more of a theatrical performer and her voice works best when it's front and center, especially when she's going for nuance. And that's the other thing: Angel Olsen's vocal delivery calls back to a classier time and delivery, and it's a really jarring fit with the fuzz-saturated instrumentation, especially considering it's nowhere near tight enough melodically to support her. And while this album doesn't suffer the abuse of reverb that's afflicting bad indie rock like a cancer, the composition is scattershot and uninteresting, catering to wall-of-sound techniques that don't cater to Angel Olsen's strengths and vocal direction, especially in the production.

In short, while I do appreciate some of the elements of this record and do like the lyrical arc, this album musically doesn't do it justice. It talks about burning fires, but at most all I get is a damp smolder that doesn't play to Olsen's biggest strengths as a performer. I appreciate she was opting for a more subtle direction, but nobody told her production team and it really hurts this record from being as memorable or powerful as it could have been. As a rating, I still like the lyrical direction enough to consider it a success and I see enough of the disparate elements on display to think that in an alternate universe, this could have worked, but as it is for me, it's a 6/10 and a tentative recommendation. If you're an Angel Olsen fan, you'll probably like her here, but honestly, I think she deserved better than this.

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