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Angel Olsen re-imagines thoughtful expression


text by Caitlin LoPilato

Today’s music industry seems to routinely dispense the same type of manufactured artist – a seemingly innocent victim who’s been fully equipped with a courtesy-of-the-record-label Les Paul and some hair extensions, then handed a chart-topping hit single on a silver platter. But a discontinuity comes with Angel Olsen: a young and pensive singer/songwriter that seems to be breaking from the industry mold. Olsen continually questions the preciseness of the music business, offering a wake-up call for the do-as-you’re-told musicians who thoughtlessly churn out albums like clockwork.

Olsen’s signature bangs boast a girl-next-door-who-can-also-kick-your-ass distinctiveness, which nicely holds hands with her musical personality. Unfailingly, her songs meander through complex paths, with both jagged edges and delicate curves, creating an artful juxtaposition. Her lyricism is intriguingly inconsistent, yet delightfully intimate, as she discloses the multifarious workings of her mind through her words. Through her humble nature with undoubted authenticity, she assures her audiences that she’s not the artificial byproduct of some music industry science experiment, but in fact, she’s a real human being.

Olsen is Missouri-raised, but the 26-year-old now calls Chicago her home. She’s got an impressive resume, providing BGVs for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, signing with Jagjaguwar (an indie label out of Indiana), and twice duetting with Marissa Nadler. In 2010, Olsen released her first project, entitled Strange Cacti EP, an incredibly simple collection of musical confessions, each track coated in its fair share of reverb.

A more poetically rich release, Half Way Home, served as her debut album in 2012. This piece offered more somber images of self-portrayal and acoustic melodies, while her latest album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, presents a broadened mix of themes and varying levels of earnestness. Here, drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh have joined forces to further Olsen’s musical journey, adding depth and newfound levels of intensity to her sound. The result is a more sophisticated version of Olsen’s developing musical profile, paying homage to her earlier releases while still blossoming into a diversified, cultivated artist.

She’s performed at the 2012 and 2013 Pitchfork music festivals, and both years, crowds gathered around her set, both charmed and captivated by her mysticism. Her stage presence is particularly distinct: the young bohemian softly approaches the microphone, and then proposes a straightforward demonstration of her music.

Olsen presents a pale gaze as she plays, and allows an occasional shy smirk, offering her talents on a dinner plate, in a sort of take-it-or-leave-it kind of address. Even with all this frankness, there is still a whirlpool of emotion enveloped into her performances. She toys with soulful melodies and powerfully expressive bursts of vocals that demand a sense of intrigue and admiration from her audience. As her flickering vocals overwhelm the air, Olsen tends to surprise both her audience and herself, exploring her personal playground of musical personalities, wandering through intensities and levels of playfulness.

In “Tiniest Seed”, she offers voluminous vocals that radiate beyond her petite frame, as easygoing guitar riffs lull into one another. When she’s on stage, there’s an element of dynamism that proposes high-voltage energies, yet Olsen can effortlessly simmer down the intensity in seconds- a skill unique to few artists in today’s music industry.

The bottom line? Olsen’s live performances emphasize her humble badass-ness, projecting a tell-it-like-it-is demeanor in way that still seems genuine and authentic.

There’s a sense of intimacy that we get with Angel Olsen that’s hard to come by in a lot of today’s more contemporary artists. Listening to her work, it seems like we’re reading a young woman’s memoir, each page leading us further into the depths of a churning mind. Her intimate interactions with her words suggest that her songs are her sacred diary entries that she holds dearly and wants to protect. Olsen’s song structures are non-formulaic, yet still provide a sense of delicateness, while her lyricism shows ambiguity, leaving the listener enchanted by her words. She’s allusive, and suggests she’s in a world of her own, yet notions to meaningful interpretations beyond herself. She explores a host of different themes, and each track boasts evidence of her realness, swirling around her innermost thoughts and personal reflections.

At the end of the day, Angel Olsen contributes an unparalleled presence in today’s music industry, and effortlessly accomplishes a charming sense of genuineness, while still delivering musical masterpieces that are nebulously alluring and delicately compelling.

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