|Angel Olsen — Half Way Home (2012)|
Angel Olsen — Half Way Home
♠ ANGEL OLSEN …grew up in St. Louis… lives in Chicago… sings songs…
♠ …eats sandwiches (in the morning)… trips.
♠ Waiting is a theme not only on the aforementioned eponymous track, but also “Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow.” So there’s something on Half Way Home about spaces inbetween:
• neither origin nor destination
• womb and birth, to not-quite-childhood
• kinda-requited love
• ignorance and knowledge (producing wisdom?)
• the everyday destruction of the world, and
• the view of death from life.
♠ "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." — Jennifer Kelly
Location: St. Louis, Missouri ~ Chicago, Illinois
Album release: September 4, 2012
Record Label: Bathetic Records
02. The Waiting
03. Safe In The Womb
04. Lonely Universe
05. Can't Wait Until Tomorrow
06. Always Half Strange
07. You Are Song
09. The Sky Opened Up
11. Tiniest Seed
♠ Ben Boye Pump Organ
♠ Jeff Harms Primary Artist
♠ Emmett Kelly Engineer, Mixing, Primary Artist, Vocals
♠ Angel Olsen Composer, Engineer, Mixing, Primary Artist, Vocals
♠ Plastic Crimewave Sound Cover Art
♠ Helge Sten Mastering
♠ Sam Wagster Primary Artist
Press contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Agent: North American Booking: Andrew@Billions.com
♠ "Ms. Olsen understands the power of holding back, and feeding out extravagance in small portions. People stopped buying drinks; the bartenders put their elbows on the counter, engrossed. It was remarkable... Ms. Olsen has found her sound - her voice, alone and untreated and slow, conjoined with the specific resonance of her guitar - and she's able to replicate a private discovery in front of a crowd. That's a lot." — The New York Times
By Laura Snapes; September 12, 2012
♠ On the last day of November 2010, Bonnie "Prince" Billy played an unannounced, mystifying show with "the Babblers" as his backing band-- made no less odd by the fact that the band was seemingly wearing fleece pajamas. Website Chattarati reported that, among songs that sounded more traditionally Oldham-like, there was also "charged-up punk that featured Angela Babbler screaming down the throats of the front row." It turned out that Angela Babbler, whose voice was described as "blood-curdling" by another site, was actually the Missouri-born, Chicago-based singer Angel Olsen, and that the "charged-up punk" was a cover of Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause's "Sweetheart", from their 1979 album Babble-- an old favorite of Oldham's.
♠ Since then, Olsen has formed part of the Cairo Gang that performed on Bonnie "Prince" Billy's recent records, and she's toured with them too-- though her extraordinary voice has set her miles above the backing-band parapet. Halfway through Wolfroy Goes to Town's "Time to be Clear", she breaks through the welcoming lull with a wordless melody as casual but striking as a ditty that Edith Piaf might have hummed whilst hanging out the washing. Trade "blood-curdling" for "blood-chilling"-- she doesn't sound of this world. "When something like that happens, I don't know how to feel," Oldham said of Olsen's improvised warble, in a Pitchfork interview. "It's almost like I get hollowed out and then filled, but I don't know what it's with. It's a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction at the same time."
♠ Olsen's voice is possessed of an intensely dramatic range; one minute she's barely singing-- more a downcast, near-spoken tumble of words-- but the next, she's a tragic heroine of the Weimar cabaret, tremendously poised but letting emotion rag her throat as if a freight train were passing through. Hers is not a voice made for modern laptop speakers. Its chalky squeak will earn lazy comparisons to Joanna Newsom; really, her palette is a mixture of the great, lost singer Connie Converse, Jason Molina's old-timey drama, Bill Callahan's terrific and unsettling ability to shift between dourness and comfort, and Nina Nastasia's graceful lope. Olsen's voice is extraordinary and unequivocal, which makes the way she uses it to sing of the most profound doubts on the follow-up to 2010's initially cassette-only Strange Cacti even more affecting.
♠ In a recent interview, Olsen talked about how she was born into a big family, but was eventually adopted, crediting her uncle and biological mother as being "a huge part" of why she plays music. She hasn't told the story of her adoption beyond that, aside from that she was given a keyboard as a parting gift before leaving her birth family. "You can imagine why I became attached to it," she said. That instrument barely figures on Half Way Home, which is mostly made up of stitches of acoustic guitar gathered into a loose but regular weave, soft double bass, and the odd patch of stark, rudimentary drumming. You get the impression that Olsen would find using the keyboard in her solo material too literal, too personal; she's spoken of her concern that there's often "too much self" in songs, and there's only one here that's set in any kind of concrete scenario rather than on a psychological stage.
♠ Sliding in with mournful electric guitar, "Lonely Universe" concerns the loss of a mother figure at a time when "I was only a child, about to lose my child-like mind." Her brothers and sisters can't help; the ambulance comes anyway, leaving Olsen dressing for school, floating as "a lonely universe." It's a heartbreaking acoustic-and-brushes sway, where her vocals, at their most dramatic, call to mind a tender Elvis, or convey the affect of a piece like Gavin Bryars' "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". It's also a canvas for Olsen's most elegant strokes of wordplay: She sings about the departing "sweet mother earth" as if she had been a lover-- "the way you touched my hands like you never had before," "You won't always understand when you've truly loved someone until after they've gone." (The previous song, the slow and spare "Safe in the Womb", talks of motherly comfort, and the protection offered by states outside of being alive; pre-life, after-life, mental purgatory.) Lyrical statements are proffered and then cut poignantly; towards the song's end, she wryly refers to the loss of her childlike innocence in more general terms: "Well, losing your mind, it ain't half as bad as it seems." Double-take, and and the devastation builds up. You can't blame her for the doubt that sets in-- "time to give up that unforgiving act of altogether-ness." Go for broke, be selfish, abandon connections, community, and family, because what good did they do you anyway?
♠ Olsen knows betrayal like the best of them: On "Miranda", she's a sheriff reading someone their rights, though the soft Emmylou Harris hurt and creak of her voice when she sings, "I love you dear, but it's not up to me/ And it's never quite been, you see," suggest that the guilty party's transgressions are emotional rather than legal. "Some of the things that you've said in my ear/ As you open a door and casually smile.../ How I have wanted to scream out/ All of the things that entered my mind," goes the end, in the record's only instance of her being driven to speak her many thoughts aloud.
♠ Belief and the futility thereof scar Half Way Home's glowing skin. "Always Half Strange" sounds like a curio recovered from turn-of-the century Europe, that casual, romantic drama filling Olsen's voice again as she fingerpicks gently. It finds her in a state that preoccupies her throughout the record-- "half life and half dream, and half crazy to believe in anything it all." She hides out in her mind, working out the value and meaning of things and people, and often judges her own worth by how much she weighs on another's mind. ("Oh, to be that distant thought/ Some growing memory/ In your mind," goes "Acrobat".) Here, things exist only if you believe in them, and it's easy to see how the precariousness of that idealism might leave you feeling a tad shaky: On the ominous, classical "The Sky Opened Up", Olsen ascends to a gap in the heavens, and returns to "see things just as they are" -- "appalled at what I had found." Whatever she sees up there imparts the distressing truth that, "If you dare to be true to what you believe/ There's always somebody to lose."
♠ It's no coincidence that Olsen receives this damning truth from a place beyond life: One belief she sustains across the album is in the finality of death. The great beyond strikes fear into many, but for Olsen, at least it puts a cap on the uncertainty of living. What's striking is that her ruminations on the subject are never morbid or even particularly sad. "If only we could understand each other, I'd happily die," she sings on "Can't Wait Until Tomorrow", one of the album's only slightly weaker tracks; rawer, even, than anything on Strange Cacti. "I thought this time last year, I'd be dead," she recalls on the conversational, largely plainspoken "You Are Song", as if recalling a more casual expectation-- improving at French, or learning to bake bread.
♠ For anyone starting to worry for Olsen's emotional health, there are patches of warm, inviting firelight away from Half Way Home's darker corners. The certainty of her feelings in the opening song, the waltzing "Acrobat"-- "I love the way your body's made/ I love the way your voice is sex"-- revives Olsen, who had assumed herself to be dead, her voice cracking with a renewed burst, almost Antony-like in rapture. And there's a tremendous, near-girlish and flirtatious feel to "The Waiting", which also proves the greatest employ of her slight backing band; electric guitar as sharp as wires bursting from fixtures, a soft male chorus, that conversational, cantering double bass. Dreamy and wry at the prospect of being swept off one's feet, it could nearly be a modern interpretation of "Fools Rush In" from the woman's perspective-- and there's something about it that calls for a male vocal to duet with Olsen, though the fact that she shirks the obvious speaks volumes about her distance from trad country tropes. And on the flippy, festive "Free", she takes incremental steps towards infatuation: "Sometimes I have to take you in my arms/ Press your heart against my heart, oh!/ You know, each day it means a little more." Come the end, she's a congregational rogue, breaking ranks to exclaim that she "can only reach him in my mind" in the kind of voice that makes skirts billow, surprised.
♠ What makes Half Way Home magnificent is its openness to what could be, to potential. Yes, we're all going to die in the end, and you can get there by casting off all belief and going it alone, or gathering moss and weighing heavier, leaving a mark, going the distance with company. It's the battle between the internal and external, the transference of intention to what's really conveyed; the tug of war between wanting to be something to someone and offering them yourself in return, while keeping something for self-protection. It's a very open record about what goes on behind a staunch emotional guard; what Will Oldham said about that "mixture of apprehension and satisfaction at the same time" rings completely true. That battle and potential is best summed up in a line from the closing song: "It's known that the tiniest seed is both simple and wild."
By Rowan Savage (Score: 4/5)
By Henning Grabow; May 16, 2013
By Jennifer Kelly; Nov. 15, 2012
Review by Fred Thomas (Editor rating: ****)
♠ With Half Way Home, her first proper solo album following some lesser EP and cassette material, Chicago songwriter Angel Olsen constructs a landscape so starkly beautiful it's surprising she can hide any of the emotional intricacies of her songs in a sound so wide open. Olsen spent some time collaborating with Bonnie "Prince" Billy on tour and singing on his records as part of the Cairo Gang, and while relating her sad-souled Americana songs to those of Bonnie Billy's wouldn't be wrong, that lazy comparison doesn't really do justice to their complexity. Half Way Home is a collection of hidden moments and gracefully wounded sounds taking notes from decades of masterfully melancholic artists. The nostalgic bounce of "The Waiting" filters an upbeat indie folk arrangement through a heavy Roy Orbison lens, spotlighting the deep loneliness locked in what comes off as a sprightly mellow rocker. Angel flits between these shades of classic '50s icons like Orbison and Patsy Cline, echoes of Joni Mitchell's '70s free-spirit wandering, and the more modernized approach shared by her indie contemporaries. On tracks like "Can't Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Always Half Strange," she manages to run through all of these styles, building from a disaffected deadpan to a soaring, yodeling crescendo. Olsen keeps the arrangements minimal for much of the album, but the more fleshed-out numbers like "Lonely Universe" and "The Sky Opened Up" have touches of '70s Euro-folk, with understated percussion, haunted vocal delays, and mumbling bass bringing out touches of Fairport Convention or even the muted sorrow of Sibylle Baier. It's the understatement that makes Half Way Home such a heart-wrenching and gorgeous listen. By album closer "Tiniest Seed," Olsen has laid out a transfixing set of tunes that fold back into a softy crushing whole. Bare-bones harmonies, restrained instrumentation, and Olsen's brilliantly isolated musical persona result in an album to return to repeatedly, with new layers revealing themselves each time.
|Angel Olsen — Half Way Home (2012)|