Release Date: Nov 10, 2017
Record label: Jagjaguwar
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Angel Olsen occupies a very strange place in the fabric of modern pop music. Akin to her contemporaries in bands such as Alvvays and Best Coast, Olsen's particular brand of hypnotic shoegaze-esque songs deliver on their mellow manifesto and effortlessly lull the listener into what is a very false sense of security. Unlike her contemporaries, Olsen delights in playing upon this classic trope by filling her songs with her forceful personality.
Both of those notions could be applied to Angel Olsen . Her relentless road schedule since the release of her latest full-length, My Woman, last September speaks to her tirelessness, as does the fact that said record was her third in five years. Plus, the differences between that album and its predecessors - 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness and her 2012 debut, Half Way Home - suggest huge creative strides taken between each one.
There is something about the way Angel Olsen's voice crackles, howls, and pulsates that gets right into your bones. Over three full-length albums (2012's Half Way Home, 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and 2016's My Woman) the Missouri-raised Olsen has roved through stories of heartbreak, longing, and self-identity over arching guitar riffs and sensuous melodies. Along the way, she's kept back tracks which haven't made it onto these records.
A year down the line from the release of her spectacular third album 'My Woman', singular songwriter Angel Olsen is staving off her legions of new fans with a collection of unreleased material and rarities made since the release of her debut EP, 2010's 'Strange Cacti'. 'Phases' is a gentle but solid thing, a quiet record that speaks loudly and encompasses the past 80 years of music, from the 1930s Americana of the Carter Family and 1950s doo-wop through to 1960s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriterism, 1970s outlaw country and early 2000s anti-folk. Like Cat Power before her, the North Carolina-based Olsen's take on folk music is intensely intimate and there are moments on 'Phases' where you feel like it's just the two of you alone in a room as she croons the timeless, stripped back likes of 'For You', 'May As Well' and a hushed cover of Bruce Springsteen's 1987 'Tougher Than The Rest', accompanied only by acoustic guitar, perfectly suited to the Boss's heartland rocking melancholy.
Olsen has long possessed an aptitude for giving her music a sense of precariousness. At her most bombastic, she teeters on the edge of apoplexy, balancing between stoic poise and reckless ire, always a hair away from succumbing to the vitriol. Tracks like “Sweet Dreams” affirm this facility for careful sonic equilibrium.
A couple of years ago, Angel Olsen performed a show inside a church revival-style tent in Luck, Texas. I'll wager that most of us camped out on those wooden benches had never actually been to an actual revival, and the situation in which we found ourselves, below the low, pointed roof of a round canvas tarp out of which a succession of bands played on a tiny wooden platform, was more akin to a production design rendering of what a revival might look like. In fact, we were on a film set.
Indie queen Angel Olsen has come a long way from her days as part of the Cairo Gang; her legion of fervid fans steadily growing with each subsequent release. It's a trajectory that mirrors the evolution of Olsen's sound--and the size of her band--from the stark, indie-folk of 2012's Strange Cacti, to the expansive, swirling soundscapes of last year's My Woman. It was My Woman--with Olsen trying on everything from synthy, dream-pop ("Intern") to Rumours-era Stevie Nicks ("Sister") and realizing they all fit perfectly--that got her into the ears and hearts of people outside of the cognoscenti, leading to sold-out shows around the world and an across-the-board spot on year-end "Best Albums" lists.
Riding the wave of two hugely successful albums, Angel Olsen has risen to become one of indie rock's more unlikely stars in recent years. I say unlikely because her folk and country indebted sound isn't exactly the most "trendy" of influences going into a genre enjoyed largely by hipsters, though her full studio albums Burn Your Fire For No Witness and MY WOMAN saw a move more towards zeitgeist indie-rock. Her earlier EPs and debut album, 2012's Half Way Home is where you will find the Asheville, NC-via-St.
Just three albums into an extremely promising career, Angel Olsen seems to be at an odd juncture to release an odds and sods compilation. But Phases, which covers the last four years or so of her career and collects ephemera like singles, demos, covers and other ad hoc material, succeeds on its modest terms because Olsen maintains the artistic vision that she distilled so finely on 2014's Burn Your Fire No Witness and 2016's My Woman. Olsen gets a lot of mileage out of the nether region between love's sweet, redemptive side and that part where it's just torment and turmoil.
Arriving a year after her Top 50 album My Woman, 2017's Phases compiles rarities spanning Angel Olsen's prior output, including early demos, stand-alone singles, and unreleased material from the My Woman recording sessions. Having made a gradual but marked shift in her sound during that time, it offers tracks representing the sparer, country-inflected lo-fi of her earliest work as well as the full-band retro rock present on My Woman. "Special" is an example of the latter, a previously unreleased track omitted from the album.
With last year's My Woman, Angel Olsen moved on from her scene-stealing cameos on records by the likes of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Karen Dalton-goes-grunge leanings of her early work to deliver a set alternating between lusty power pop and long, simmering jams of the sort that gave the listener a hitherto unsuspected urge to invest in a red lightbulb. And in doing so, she became rather popular. So much so that we already have the sort of obscurity-collecting set you'd usually expect from artists in their dotage.
Photo by Kylie Coutts With her last album, MyWoman, Angel Olsen made a sharp right turn into pop, laying aside the goth-y backwoods folk that haunted her early albums, along with the punk rock aggression that turned up intermittently in Burn Your Fire for No Witness. She donned a platinum wig. She learned some dance moves. She refused to pigeon-holed.
Over a year after the runaway, breakthrough success of 'My Woman' established Angel Olsen as one of music's brightest young storytellers and proof that she could turn her hand to more than just heartfelt folk, the Missouri-born singer-songwriter returns with her latest collection of songs. A record filled with obscurities and rarities, as well as some previously heard material, delicately and lovingly put together to show off Olsen's many facets; from the soft folk daydream of 'All Right Now' (a bonus track from the deluxe edition of 'Burn Your Fire For No Witness') to the '60s influenced indie rock of 'Sweet Dreams' (released as a single in 2013). Effectively acting as a mixtape of all the bits that have floated around the edges of Olsen's main studio albums, 'Phases' begins with the marching tempo of 'Fly On Your Wall', a song taken from the Bandcamp-only Anti-Trump fundraiser earlier this year before launching into the record's best track, 'Special', a brand new song lifted from the recordings of 'My Woman'.