Angel Olsen’s Problem

Until a few days ago, I didn’t know about Angel Olsen. But then I noticed her album, My Woman, showing up on end of the year Bests lists.

I assumed someone named Angel Olsen was a country singer. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I’d already listened to the highly acclaimed Miranda Lambert album, The Weight of These Wings, and appreciated a lot of it, but if Olsen’s album couldn’t beat Lambert’s, I wasn’t that excited.

Eventually, I played Olsen’s elpee. She has a quavery voice. She sings like a folk singer. The mix gives her a fuckload of reverb or tremolo or whatever you want to call it. And it isn’t country music. Not at all. So I listened again.

Here’s the standout song. I think I’ve heard this on the radio.

Standout, but not great. Weird, and it turns out, a much bigger performance than Angel Olsen usually delivers. For instance, her early tracks were kind of folk-weird. Nothing wrong with that, but the minimal setting was a far cry from Shut Up Kiss Me.

I’m a fan of poetic women poeticizing, but on both the minimal early recordings and the recent best of year disk, I’m concerned by the reverb that enriches her voice, and diminishes our ability to process it.

In any case, I’m not expert on Angel Olsen. My interest is in her highly-touted 2016 release. And here there is a weird disconnect. On the song that precedes Shut Up, Never Be Mine, she taps a Shangri-Las vibe, but the band never gets into it. Her vocals are strong, but the band fades into the back. A song that needs giant strings, and epic ambitions, fades into who cares.

And when I listen to Not Gonna Kill You, I hear a hard backing track that turns into muddle because of the soft reverbed vocals. I think of how Debbie Harry might have handled these words, this arrangement. How PJ Harvey, who built a career singing against a rock guitar, would have confronted the sound of the band. But Angel doesn’t. She’s too folkie for her band, and it hurts.

I have to try to understand why rock critics buy this flawed presentation. I think it pushes the rock referential buttons, and everyone loves a pretty young woman fronting a rock band. Even a wimpy one. And this band isn’t that wimpy when it’s allowed to play. Another reason critics might get into it. Not Going to Kill You rocks once the you get past the vocals.

But that’s the key. I think Angel Olsen is one of those folkie talents who ends up rocking, because that’s the best shot at being something. Even if the business doesn’t fit. Or maybe she’ll make it fit. That would be a subject for a David O. Russell film.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.