Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Previously subdued songwriter Angel Olsen cranks up the volume

When musicians re-imagine the sounds of the past, it’s almost always through a romanticized lens. For artists like Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls, the long-ago rock ’n’ roll of the ’50s and ’60s represents a kind of safe space, a respite where pouting hearts are soothed by nostalgic comforts. That isn’t the case, though, for songwriter Angel Olsen, whose volatile voice lends an undercurrent of real, immediate danger to the early garage-rock throwbacks of Burn Your Fire For No Witness. As a cross between Roy Orbison’s wounded sob and Odetta’s all-consuming roar, that voice distinguished the sparse folk of Olsen’s 2012 full-length debut, Half Way Home, and here she dials it up even further to compete with the dirt-kicking electric guitars that producer John Congleton pipes to the top of the mix.

 “I feel so much at once that I could scream,” Olsen trembles on the hard-strummed “Stars,” sounding every bit as though she might make good on that threat. The volume invigorates her. If she feels a bit like a tourist on the album’s punkiest rocker, “Forgiven/Forgotten,” she sounds much more comfortable playing Patsy Cline with a megaphone on the fuzz-drenched “Hi-Five,” where she grills a voiceless lover: “Are you lonely too? Hi-five! So am I.” Her voice drips with scorn and resentment, but also the spiteful satisfaction that comes from landing a good dig.

There’s an inherent risk in a voice as powerful as Olsen’s. It’s a winning hand other singer-songwriters could easily overplay, pushing every song to histrionics, but even on an album as brash as Burn Your Fire, Olsen knows when to pull back. For every swift punch there’s a slower-burning counterpart like the light samba “Iota” or “White Fire,” seven minutes of hushed, disquieting folk. For his part, Congleton keeps the mix uncluttered, resisting his usual claustrophobic production tricks, though he throws a little extra sheen on the glittering closing ballad, “Windows,” one last showcase for Olsen’s breathtaking voice on an album that never stops putting it to great use.        


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