ANYONE WHO SAW Angel Olsen brazenly back-chatting bearded alt.country patriarch Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy while playing with his occasional accompanists The Cairo Gang might have suspected she was bound for great things. And this superb second album makes a comparably dramatic leap forward - vaulting straight from evident promise to its stringent and unarguable realisation - to the one Will Oldham made at the same point in his pre-Bonnie incarnation as Palace Brothers. The seductive harshness of Karen Dalton, the infectious languor of Mazzy Star, the clipped, sardonic intensity of the first two Cate Le Bon albums... if you’ve a partiality for any one of these addictive pleasures, this album will have plenty to offer you. For those who are suckers for all three, your Christmas and birthday have come at once.
“Suggests Grace Slick auditioning for Nico’s role in the Velvet Underground.”
It’s not so much that Angel Olsen’s singing explicitly recalls any of that illustrious trio, rather that it now inhabits its own particular space with the same feline self-assurance. The dizzying vocal swoops and stripped down acoustic backings of her 2012 debut Half Way Home still felt slightly staged, as if they were the work of someone successfully following a set of instructions. But the happy circumstances of the intervening year - her rapid coalescing with drummer Josh Jaegar and bassist Stewart Bronaugh into an operational band, the judicious promptings of Bill Callahan producer John Congleton - have facilitated a far more authoritative demeanour.
From the deliberate duplication that subtly undermines Hi-Five’s superficially affirmative message - “Are you lonely too? High five - So am I!” to the subliminal shimmer of a bossa nova wavelet beneath Iota’s yearning refrain of “If only we could always stay the same”, it’s the subtle interplay of writing and performance skills that makes these songs so powerful. And Olsen’s imposing vocal range is now matched by a similarly expansive stylistic waterfront.
The two-minute indie power-surge of Forgiven/Forgotten would not have broken the breezy pop-grunge spell of the second Breeders album; the moment when Olsen kicks up a stentorian gear in High & Wild suggests Grace Slick auditioning for Nico’s role in the Velvet Underground; and her playful delivery on the Nashville-tinged Lights Out (“If you’ve got a sense of humour, you’re not so bad”) is worthy of the great Arkansas quaverer Iris Dement. But it’s the album’s sumptuously mordant seven-minute centrepiece White Fire that really steals the show. This is Cohen-esque not in the all too familiar manner of having been specifically framed to create that impression, but in the rarer and more valuable sense of making you wonder if Leonard could have done as well with it.
Watch the video for Forgiven/Forgotten: