There is no pretense about Chicago-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. Her style moves counter to the trends of today’s soundscape — raw, stripped-down, and beautifully underproduced — and her recent move from Bathetic Records to Jagjaguwar is poised to catapult her to the next level alongside labelmates Bon Iver and Foxygen.
Monday night, she wandered onto The Echo’s stage like she’d accidentally made a wrong turn and now found herself with a guitar in hand among a sea of fans waiting for her next move with bated breath. She looked out onto the crowd with a steely gaze, and with a weepy cello behind her, I felt as though Olsen had invited us into the intimate surroundings of her home for our own private show — what joy to watch her tinker among her own solitude and exorcise her personal demons!
But make no mistake about it; this reserved persona gave way to a stellar and understated performance. A dull roar from the crowd instantly hushed as the ghostly whispers of “Acrobat” subtly sprouted from Olsen’s lips, and with that, the evening was underway.
Olsen’s stage persona is every bit what you’d expect from hearing her music. So few and far between were her dialogues with the audience that her hungry fans hung on every utterance. She is the musical equivalent of watching a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. Limited dialogue, maximum emotion.
The evening was a trip through much of Olsen’s newer material from the late-2012 release Half Way Home, which is dotted with some lighter fare than her initial 2011 EP offering, Strange Cacti. Songs like “The Waiting” nod to the delicate percussion and progressions of ‘60 folk-pop artists such as The Mamas and The Papas. With a swig of her PBR and a boisterous “What’s Up?” Olsen introduced “Drunk and With Dreams,” saying enigmatically “This next song is about buying drinks.” “Can I buy you a drink? an audience member deftly served up.
Though “The Waiting” and her more up-tempo numbers are quality — a fresh take on a familiar genre — Olsen’s gift shines brightest when it is just her, a guitar, and little else. Her voice is staggering and unique. It is seemingly untrained in the best way possible. She was sometimes soft and introspective, as on “Always Half Strange,” and in moments of true brilliance, she’d lift her head to open her rich reserves, such as with “Some Things Cosmic.” Her’s is a voice that sits somewhere comfortably between operatic and the country call of a yodel. Watching this natural display, the range and fluidity of her swoons and croons, was spiritual.
Olsen’s bassist and drummer retreated for the even further stripped down final numbers. Then, facing an empty stage, Olsen’s fans clamored for more. Chants of “Angel! Angel! Angel!” A series of regimented clapping immediately began to help coax her out once again. Olsen emerged — alone — and took her spot on stage to bid adieu with the apt “Lonely Universe,” a song traversing the goodbye — or lack there of — to her mother.
But perhaps the sweetest moment was when Olsen brought “Miranda” to a final lull. In that delicate moment just between absolute silence and applause, the snap of a camera’s shutter drew her gaze and a quizzical, modest grin — another reminder that this is all still so new. As if we needed anything beyond her honest and heart-wrenching lyrics to remind us that, for Angel Olsen, what you see is what you get.
Previously only available digitally and on vinyl, Bathetic will be releasing Half Way Home in its first-ever CD format on May 14th.
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