An indie singer/songwriter who delivers her vulnerable songs with a distinctive warble informed by vintage country, Angel Olsen's early, spare, acoustic songs grew increasingly lush and dramatic across her first several albums. The onetime Bonnie "Prince" Billy backup singer debuted with the reverb-heavy solo indie folk of 2010's Strange Cacti, expanding to an alt-country power trio for her third album, 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness, her Billboard 200 debut. Two years later, My Woman reached a career-high number 47 on the chart. While maintaining an intimate character and a haunting sound reinforced by stylized echo, Olsen recorded her fifth long-player, 2019's All Mirrors, with a 14-piece orchestra. The follow-up, 2020's Whole New Mess, offered an overhauled solo version of All Mirrors that included a pair of original songs. An '80s-themed covers EP, Aisles, appeared a year later. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Olsen began performing in the city's coffee shops during her teenage years, soon branching out and tapping into a network of like-minded artists. She moved to Chicago in 2006, eventually working with California musician Emmett Kelly as part of his collective the Cairo Gang. Singing harmonies on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's 2010 album The Wonder Show of the World as well as its 2011 follow-up, Wolfroy Goes to Town, Olsen also released her own set of original acoustic-guitar songs, Strange Cacti, in 2010. The cassette was later reissued as a 12", both on Bathetic Records. Half Way Home, a spare album with understated arrangements and a homespun approach somewhere between '50s country crooners and her indie contemporaries, followed on the same label in 2012. In early 2013, Olsen added drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh to flesh out her stripped-back sound, which added a brooding, garage rock appeal to her intimate music. Soon after forming the trio, Olsen returned to the studio with producer John Congleton to track sessions for her third album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which was released in early 2014 on Jagjaguwar. The record was critically well-received and spent a week at number 71 on the Billboard 200. By then resettled in Asheville, North Carolina, Olsen expanded her sound still further on 2016's My Woman, touring as a six-piece to support its release. My Woman fared even better on the U.S. album chart, reaching number 47. Jagjaguwar followed it in 2017 with Phases, a compilation of Olsen rarities such as early demos and unreleased material from the My Woman sessions. In June 2019, Olsen contributed a featured spot on a track for Mark Ronson's collaborative Late Night Feelings, whose other guests included the likes of Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus, and Lykke Li. Featuring production by Congleton and chamber orchestra arrangements by Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, her expansive fifth studio album, All Mirrors, arrived on Jagjaguwar in October 2019. That record also landed on the Billboard 200, peaking at number 52. Olsen returned the following year with the stripped-down Whole New Mess, her first true solo album since 2012's Half Way Home. Captured in Anacortes, Washington, at the Unknown, a church that was converted into a recording studio by producer Nicholas Wilbur and Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum, it saw Olsen rework nine songs from the heavyhearted All Mirrors (alongside two originals) using only her voice and guitar accompaniment. The box set Song of the Lark and Other Far Memories followed in May 2021. It packaged All Mirrors and Whole New Mess with a set of related bonus material titled Far Memory and a 40-page souvenir photo book. Later the same month, the John Congleton-produced original song "Like I Used To" found her duetting with Sharon Van Etten. She returned just a few months later with the covers EP Aisles. It reimagined '80s tracks made famous by acts like Laura Branigan, Billy Idol, and Men Without Hats.
© Fred Thomas & Marcy Donelson /TiVo
© Fred Thomas & Marcy Donelson /TiVo
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Alternative & Indie - Released August 28, 2020 | Jagjaguwar
Angel Olsen's spare, echoey Whole New Mess is a prequel of sorts, the blueprints that led to the ornate orchestral pop of her acclaimed 2019 release All Mirrors. Recorded in a converted church in rural Washington state, the new album contains demos of nine songs that appeared on All Mirrors, some with different lyrics or titles, as well as two previously unreleased originals. You can almost hear Olsen's diehard fans…Demos rather than new material? Groan. That reaction is likely to be temporary. Because in tone and spirit, if not structure, these solo versions are revealingly different. With them, Olsen invites listeners inside the ongoing what-if-we-tried-this? musings that are part of the songwriting process and shows how the intention and resonance of a song can change depending on the setting or the moods and whims of the interpreter. Olsen has said that the songs of All Mirrors followed the demise of a long romantic relationship; these demos show her working out not just the basic structures but also how raw to be. Her words grapple with deep notions of commitment, trust and betrayal, and as she seeks the most effective ways to deliver them, she's mindful of the ratios between narrative detail and broad emotional tone, between the sting of reality and blissed out hooks. She delivers the "Lark Song" verses with deceptively calm detachment, like she's just bricklaying to get the ideas down. That changes when she reaches the hook, which she belts with cathartic abandon. Similarly abrupt shifts (in tone and also the amount of reverb) define the hypnotic "Impasse": Knowing where she landed, with the expansive Roy Orbison-like orchestral tilt of the All Mirrors version, it's interesting to hear earlier points on the journey, with Olsen singing as though she's leaving herself notes (about peaks, valleys and the spaces in between) for future sessions. But the Whole New Mess version is mesmeric on its own, a reminder that a solidly constructed song reveals its truths regardless of the setting. © Tom Moon/Qobuz