On Monday night at Three Links, Angel Olsen began her set with two rolicking numbers, "Forgiven/Forgotten" and "Hi-Five," the second and third tracks on her outstanding new record, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen's opening choices were auspicious because the songs let her show off her solid four-piece band, her dexterous voice and her serrated songwriting.
Singing and playing rhythm guitar, Olsen was supported by Stewart Bronaugh on lead guitar, Josh Jaeger on drums, and Emily Elhaj on bass. Together the mates created music that harkened to Spector's wall of sound and Sun Records' shuffling, strutting rhythm patterns. On "Hi-Five" Olsen rumbled from a Roy Orbison warble to an Emmylou Harris near-yodel in a single line, while Elhaj and Jaeger kept the rhythm solidly on Memphis time.
On the third song, "Lights Out," as Bronaugh massaged George Harrison-like lead lines around Olsen's achy voice, she cornered a waffling lover: "If you don't feel good about it/ Then turn around/ If you really mean it, baby/ Stand your ground." But even as the song rose urgently, Olsen's unharried tone subverted the conflict.
Though Jaeger drove many songs with dance patterns, the music acted like a sedative, hypnotizing many into appreciative but sober praise. When one guy howled his applause, the the others' muted responses begged him to question, "What, nobody fucking screams anymore?"
But screaming is important to Olsen's new songs. And on the band's best song, "Stars," (and the best one on Burn Your Fire) Olsen makes screaming the sensible response to love's insanity:
I think you like to see me lose my mind You treat me like a child, I'm angry blind I feel so much at once I could scream
Wish I had the voice of everything, sometimes Wish I had the voice of everything
To scream the animals, to scream the earth To scream the stars out of our universe To scream it all back into nothingness To scream the feeling til there's nothing left
In the song's second half, Olsen turns the lyric as she's turned by her lover's smile, singing the animals and the universe back into somethingness.
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While some critics have pointed to Wilco and Bonnie Prince Billy as Olsen's musical lineage, to my ears, Olsen's nimble voice and flexible band have inherited traits from Nico and the Velvet Underground; Linda Ronstadt; Mazzy Star; Olsen's Jagjaguwar label mate, Sharon Van Etten and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Worden's influence was all over the show's final pieces, the grave and beautiful songs, "Windows" and "Enemy."
Both songs let Olsen play her voice like a clarinet, reedy and warm. Closing the show with a solo performance on electric guitar, Olsen extended "Enemy" into a twelve minute trance by slowing the tempo and cycling through the chord changes elliptically. Singing about loss and release -- "I'm lighter on my feet when I've left some things behind" -- Olsen relinquished the crowd to the night, leaving them dazed and murmuring with wonder.