It would appear that Angel Olsen is finally gaining the confidence to take centre stage. The Missourian, who started her career in Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s backing band, was reserved when she toured earlier this year.
Back on the road ahead of the reissue of her breakthrough second album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, however, she’s relaxed and chatty. It’s initially disconcerting to have her break into a smile and giggle during the surprisingly jaunty ‘Hi-Five’ and languid ‘Acrobat’; tracks that could have been expressly recorded for late night intimacies.
As the audience becomes acclimatised to the shift in mood it nonetheless takes on its own form of beauty and intensity. The country-noir of opening track ‘Free’ would sit happily in Roy Orbison’s catalogue; ‘Sweet Dreams’ has the dark filmic quality of a David Lynch soundtrack; and ‘Miranda’ has the raw truck-stop country of Paula Frazer.
Many of these tracks, but especially the 50’s vibe of ‘May As Well’, have the instant familiarity of a cover version. But while her reference points can be spotted there’s something individualistic and deeply emotional in her vibrato, which has some of the qualities of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s.
The catch in her voice when she sings, “If you feel like quitting now / Then try a little harder,” on ‘Lights Out’ is heartbreaking, having the same affecting resonance as Sharon Van Etten. It’s also versatile enough to go from being a whisper to an exultant cry, as when she defiantly confesses, ”I don’t know anything!” on the grungy ‘Forgiven / Forgotten’.
These moments give the tracks a magical poignancy, with the pin-drop atmosphere helping to create the impression that she’s singing in private. It’s slightly ironic, then, that when her three-piece backing band leaves her to perform the final two songs solo she falls emotionally flat.
If the Leonard Cohen drollery of ‘White Fire’ and bossa nova-tinged ‘Iota’ end the gig on a somewhat deflated mood, however, then the rest of the set helps to seal Olsen’s reputation as a major new talent for the lonely and dispossessed.
Gig date: September 22