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Angel Olsen - Half Way Home

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Artist: Angel Olsen

Album: Half Way Home

Label: Bathetic

Review date: Nov. 15, 2012

Angel Olsen was the behind-the-scenes heroine of Bonnie Prince Billy’s last album, Wolfroy Comes to Town, her voice a luminous aura, a down-home cackle, a blues-y scrape and roll, a sacred harp harmony around Oldham’s cracked tenor. Here, on her second solo album (counting limited-release, cassette-only Strange Cacti from 2011), she brings that instrument out in front, singing 11 emotionally-freighted original songs, with the merest hint of instrumentation — strummed guitar, terse bass, occasional drums and pump organ.

Olsen’s vocal technique is unorthodox, guttural, nearly feral at times. She has evidently never had a singing lesson, and that’s not a complaint, because her wildness is utterly compelling. She often starts in a matter of fact way, murmuring breathy melodies against a backdrop of guitar picking. Her “Acrobat,” Half Way Home’s first song, circles in waltz-time, its melody (not too different from Delibes’s “Waltz from Copelia”) side-stepping up the scale, her voice quiet, fresh and unshowy. It sounds like she is standing next to you, maybe to one side, with her breath tickling your ear. Yet, as she rounds the first verse, her voice turns unpredictable, flickering up octaves like a wildfire catching. “I want to be the bed you mess,” she confides, finding a cavernous physicality in her girlish voice, a hollowed, animal-like, bluesy sound that goes straight to your spine and sets off a tingle. There’s something exciting about the way she sings, something predatory and dangerous about the way she soars up into a high note, seizes it, still wiggling with vibrato, and drags it back to earth.

Olsen’s voice is so unusual that the songwriting in Half Way Home may get short shrift, but it’s actually quite good. Olsen’s writing is, like her singing, stark, unmannered and original, preoccupied with primal themes like birth, death and love, but mostly drained of sentimentality. “Lonely Universe,” the album’s seven-and-a-half minute centerpiece, concerns the violent death of a child, describing in chilling detail her choking at the hands of a friend or relative. The song is very sparsely set, one note at a time punctuating the gloom, a bent guitar note, the crack of snare, the subliminal whine of pump organ. Olsen’s voice is the main thing, mostly subdued, but swelling and vibrating and flitting up and down at intervals, now soft and reticent, now birdlike and trilling, now wild like an animal at bay.

Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang is Olsen’s main collaborator here, reinforcing the drama with the most minimal arrangements possible: bits of guitar and bass mostly, occasional percussion and, in two songs, the subliminal whine of organ (that’s Chicagoan Ben Boye on keyboards in “Acrobat” and “Lonely Universe”). As on his own album, The Corner Man, less pulls the weight of more. The backing parts underline mood without getting in the way of the vocals. In “Miranda,” the album’s prettiest, most uncomplicated interval, there are gospel-ish harmonies in the crevices of Olsen’s verses, though they are so simple and matter-of-fact that you hardly notice them at first.

The whole package is so intriguing that I’d put Half Way Home in the company of Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, Sharon Van Etten’s Because I Was in Love and Mia Doi Todd’s The Golden State. Like these albums, it introduces a distinctive, unorthodox female songwriting talent who can only become more interesting as she gains experience.

By Jennifer Kelly

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