Once in a while I try to listen through the proceedings of everyday hoping to discovering some new music. Alas, the daily bustle heavily distorts such a process so I’ve come to accept that discovering new music for me is all about trusting my subconscious to preselect the average from the great, simply by neglecting what’s playing at the background. About a week ago, after an unknown number of background plays of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, my subconscious finally shook me up, telling me it was time for a proper listen to Angel Olsen. And then it hit me: Olsen’s second full release is probably my first true highlight of the year.
Although the now twenty-something Angel Olsen is relatively fresh to the Americana scene, her involvement in music goes back to her early youth. Together with her foster parents she played piano, wrote songs and made mixtapes of herself singing like a nineties diva. Olsen left her comfort zone during her late teenage years and began performing in local St. Louis coffee shops where she met the Bonnie “Prince” Billy affiliated group, Cairo Gang. They gave her just the boost a beginner needs by adding her to Bonnie’s pyjama freakshow, The Babblers. Appearances as a background vocalist on The Wonder Show of the World (2010), its follow-up Wolfroy Goes to Town (2011) and extensive touring with Bonnie himself did the rest and preluded the take off of her solo career. Olsen’s first solo release was Strange Cacti EP (2011) on which she rediscovered her Midwestern roots. Her first LP, Half Way Home, followed a year later and vocally lies somewhere between Beth Gibbons stripped sound from Out of Season (2002) and the warm homespun yet illustrious country recordings from Connie Converse.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness starts small with the intimate folky ‘Unfucktheworld’ but aims high right after, with the shaky rock on ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’. Between these two styles Olsen gracefully manages to create a dashing Americana record hitting the bullseye on each song. Olsen’s sophomore differs most from Half Way Home in terms of sound, that now is much fuller and clear. Band and production centre around Olsen’s colorful voice raising it to a more mature level, and even more important, making the lyrics almost tangible. The melanogenic ‘Lights Out’ and the outreaching ‘Stars’ are, in a figure of speech, very close to the heart, whilst the bone breaking honest reckoning of ‘High and Wild’ is, strangely enough, almost embarrassing to listen to. Uncomfortable or not, dynamics like this make the 45 minutes it takes Burn Your Fire For No Witness to complete a highly interesting sit through. Dark theme’s such a loneliness are confidently besung, on ‘Hi-Five’ the light-hearted undertone is rather amusing: “I feel so lonesome, I could cry […] Are you lonely too? Hi-five, so am I”. On the other hand ‘White Fire’ is perhaps the album’s most subdued song on which Olsen, supported by some minimal guitar play, slowly hushes you into a state of half sleep for about 7 minutes. Eventually the album serenely meanders to an ending. Or better said, it attempts to do so. ‘Dance Slow Decades’ is an echoey and emotional grasp to not let go, whilst ‘Enemy’ is its intimate counterpart that accepts the inevitable. Here the album should have ended but instead, and to my surprise, the final piece still awaits. The crescendo based ‘Window’, is utmost beautiful on its own yet lacks to rise above a lot of other indie pop ballads, making the album’s triptych finale a bit overdone.
Measuring quality has always been a risky business, especially in the highly subjective world of music. Nevertheless, I’m sure Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a LP that’s made of high standards. Spoken in metaphor of a graph, Olsen ambitiously starts somewhere slightly above origin of the y-axis and expertly builds a horizontal upward trend from there. Although the diversity of the tracks sequence can be perceived as messy, I found the selection to be beneficial to the overall album for each song complements the previous one, thus adding up to a very lively LP. Anti-climax, ‘Window’ however has to be taken out of account and probably is the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, what’s most important is Olsen’s own achievement. With this new release she definitively steps out of the background and proves her voice has grown to be strong, spacious and rich.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a serious contender to be this years revelation in the singer-songwriter genre. Fans of Country Folk and rattling Americana (e.g., Bill Callahan, Neko Case, Howe Gelb, Gillian Welch, Will Oldham and The Baptist Generals) will easily fall in love the work of Olsen. To others I would highly recommend to give Burn Your Fire For No Witness a few background plays and I’ll guarantee eventually you won’t be able to neglect it.
Label: Jagjaguwar, 2014
- Unfucktheworld (2:05)
- Forgiven / Forgotten (2:04)
- Hi-Five (2:58)
- White Fire (6:56)
- High & Wild (3:53)
- Lights Out (4:27)
- Stars (4:28)
- Iota (3:28)
- Dance Slow Decades (4:06)
- Enemy (5:44)
- Windows (4:08)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 120314