With Chris Cohen
Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017
Midway through “Heart Shaped Face,” the fifth song of her set at Trees on Wednesday night, Angel Olsen made a mistake. Coming into one of the verses, she got her timing wrong and missed the first line. Her backup singer jumped in on cue with the harmony while Olsen cracked a grin, then tossed her head back and let out a laugh.
Seeing Olsen miss a cue was notable not because it was a major mistake (it wasn’t) but because so much of the Asheville singer’s music hinges on being perfect. In particular, her singing: Olsen’s voice, often quavering, sometimes wailing, is a tool of accent and inflection, and it requires a great degree precision. She’s not apt to break out laughing mid-song.
Last year’s critically acclaimed album, My Woman, saw Olsen expand her sound with her most musically robust album to date. Some have even called it her pop album, which isn’t altogether inappropriate, particularly given how her fans sang along to every word from the new album’s single, “Shut Up Kiss Me,” rather than standing in reverent silence.
The upshot of that was that Olsen appeared at Trees with a five-piece band, all of whom were dressed up in matching suits and bolos while silver tinsel hung as a backdrop. It all had the feel of a Nashville revue, a fact that was enhanced by the songs taking on a distinct twang that’s mostly not there on the recorded versions of her songs.
One of the highlights of the night came early on when Olsen harmonized not with her backup singer but one of her guitarists’ slide guitars on “Lights Out.” The slide, employed subtly and tastefully, was the perfect complement to Olsen, who has an almost ventriloquist-like ability to throw her voice, as though more than one person is singing when it’s actually only her.
A couple songs later, “Sister” saw Olsen nailing the formula that underpins much of her music, which is to say, a steady build up. She doesn’t so much follow traditional song structure (thus why a “Shut Up Kiss Me” feels like a pop departure) as she follows her smoldering voice to a seemingly inevitable crescendo. With carefully deployed vibrato, Olsen’s singing always remains the emotional center of the music, communicating not so much through the words she sings as through the breathy nuance of the delivery.
There are some obvious antecedents to Olsen’s singing, namely early ’90s acts like Mazzy Star or the Cowboy Junkies. But there’s an urgency to Olsen’s music that sets her apart; “Sister" sounded more like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” slowed down to 33 rpm than either of those bands, which was fitting given that both songs are about another woman. Even naming her album My Woman, given today’s political climate, comes with vastly different stakes than it would have 20 or 25 years ago, and that — like much of Olsen’s music — is no accident.
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In truth, Olsen could deliver many of these songs all by herself if she so chose, so playing with the band proved something of a balancing act — and in the second half of the set that balance seemed to be lost. A few songs after “Sister” came “Not Gonna Kill You,” the song that builds up to the most furious crescendo on the new album, but at Trees it felt flat. The backup singer’s vocals overwhelmed Olsen’s for half the song, and for the rest of it the band plodded through the chords rather than truly rocked out.
Most of the remainder of the set followed suit, and even when Olsen hopped on her keyboard during the encore its haunting quality felt out of place. At times she even seemed a little tired. But, when the songs did come back to life, it was thanks to Olsen. Never was that clearer than on “Woman,” where that inch-perfect execution went out the window and she once again tossed her head back — not to laugh, but to howl.
Never Be Mine
Shut Up Kiss Me
Heart Shaped Face
Those Were the Days
Not Gonna Kill You
Give It Up