on 1 January 2013
It's a pity few people in the UK are likely to come across this interesting set of songs by yet another (I know, I know: there are just too many of them...) interesting young American singer-songwriter. That's partly because Angel Olsen is little known over here (as yet: that may well change)and partly because at the moment Halfway is only available here as a download. (You can buy the CD from the U.S. but that's a fairly expensive option, if you're taking a punt on someone new to you.)
Most of those in Britain who HAVE heard her, either live or recorded, will have encountered her singing with Bonnie Prince Billy (she toured with him in 2011 and features on his splendid Wolfroy Goes To Town CD). Once heard, her very individual voice and style aren't easily forgotten or mistaken for anyone else. The voice is rich yet flexible, the style moves easily from an old-time mountain-y wail (including a trademark - and perhaps slightly overused but on the other hand also often plangently effective - yelp-cum-yodel, the best-judged appearances of which can be breath-takingly moving) to something more reminiscent of classic Nashville divas of the 50s and 60s then on again to a much more contemporary sensitively angst-ridden husky whisper. Her song-writing covers the same trio of bases - sometimes even within a single song (as in The Waiting or the closing track, the delicious Tiniest Seed) - but the melodies are almost always memorable. OK, from time to time the lyrics push too hard to be 'significant' but, like the melodies, they're never dull or merely routine.
Whereas her earlier Strange Cacti was essentially her and her guitar with songs confined to the 'sensitive and angst-ridden' end of her range, on Halfway Home not only is there much more variety in the song-writing but she's backed by a (discreetly laid-back) small band, headed by Emmett Kelly of BPB's Cairo Gang. I've seen American reviews complaining that the backing is too minimal, too unvarying, too 'under-produced' (generally, no more than guitar, bass guitar, occasional drum, occasional keyboard) but to my mind, ear, sense of taste, that's very well judged and just right for this singer and these songs. This is very much 'a record,' not a live performance, but even so listening to it still produces something of the intimate 'being-there-in-the-room' effect of, say, the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Session.
If this sort of music is at all 'your sort of thing,' it's well worth gambling a few quid on the download, checking her out on YouTube (for example, there's a wonderful version, with BPB and Emmett K, of Kevin Coyne's Come Down Here) and keeping your eyes and ears peeled for what she does next (a CD of covers is promised).