The Complicatist : Angel Olsen, William Tyler
Are you lonely too? Hi Five! So am I!
by Gordon Campbell
Since February, Angel Olsen’s new album has been the platform she needed to take her from backup singer in Will Oldham’s rowdy crew, to full-fledged stardom in her own right. The easiest way to describe her is that she sounds like a female Roy Orbison and for once, the easy comparison hits on a deeper truth. Its not simply that Olsen’s inflections sound similar. They seem to come from a similar well of sadness, a loneliness with integrity because she’s not fighting it ; like Orbison, she sounds like she just accepts that this is the way it is, and gets on with it. Its like Portuguese fado, plonked down in Appalachia.
So without further ado, here are a couple of Olsen tracks as introduction. “ Some Things Cosmic “ is from a Pitchfork festival performance last year, and then there’s a great performance of “Safe In The Womb” taken from a concert she did in Britain last year. In December, she was back there again, as the opening act for Neko Case.
The lyrics to the latter song are pretty stunning, too:
I was safe when I was in the womb
I was warm when I was wrestling to get out
Out of the flesh
And the sound of the world filled easily
And the eyes above watched eagerly
In the hope of the nave
In the hopes of a change
It was all bright, clear
It was all bright, clear
Deep in the nest of an endless dream
When a stranger thought becomes of me
It can slowly turn my blood
Just as the rings around our ever burning sun
Eventually wilt a once freshly blooming bud
It was all bright, clear
Subtlely shedding back the years
And after it all we soon disappeared
Yes, into the dark depths we all soon disappeared
Out of this labyrinth that makes our world
How do we ever know the light inside ourselves?
To know that the skin that we wear is raw
That we can be anything if we know anything at all
Yes, we can be anything if we know anything at all…
There’s an earlier, equally compelling version of “Some Things Cosmic” available here which has more of that fado-like intensity to it that I mentioned earlier. (Made me think anyway of Amalia Rodrigues, and her great song, “ Barco Negro…”)
So who is Angel Olsen? She came out of Missouri, is currently based in Chicago. Olsen was adopted at age three, which – as others have noted – does lend some heft to the lines from her song “Enemy” that go : “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth / I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt.” She did her share of waitressing / solo folk gigs before joining up with Oldham, around the time of the Wolfroy Goes To Town album. As one reviewer of Wolfroy pointed out, Oldham’s female foils usually provide a warm, hearth-mother counterpoint to his jagged meanderings – but Olsen by contrast, happens to be just as wild and unpredictable a vocalist as he is. (On the great “ Time To Be Clear” from the Wolfroy album for instance, she comes in halfway through with some wordless ululation that takes the song to an entirely different level.)
All the same, the new electrified album Burn Your Fire For No Witness is what should push her over the top. “Hi Five” is a pretty amusing song – at least for something that references Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in its opening line and evokes Orbison en route to the exultant punchline : “ Are you lonely too ? Are you lonely too ? Hi Five ! So am I !” No accident that the video looks like a Blue Velvet out-take. Finally, there’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” – the first single and lead track from the new album. There’s a good live rendition of this song ( from the same Pitchfork festival footage) on Youtube as well, but this is the official video.
For much of his career, Tyler was the boy genius guitarist with Lambchop ; and he too, has spent time in Will Oldham’s backing band (around the time of the Master and Everyone album in 2003) and with Charlie Louvin, Candi Staton and others. Tyler’s second album Impossible Truth is not only a showcase for his phenomenal finger picking, but for his writing skills as well. Anyone listening to “Cadillac Desert “ can follow the emotional ebb and flow of the music without needing the signposts of a set of lyrics. Ditto goes for the lovely, exultant “A Portrait of Sarah” dedicated to his girlfriend, Sarah Souther. Throughout the album, there’s a palpable longing for something bigger and more noble than the dying days of empire have to offer. As Tyler said in an interview last year : “My songs are like jingles for products that don’t exist anymore… I think nostalgia almost has a tyrannical hold on certain segments of our generation. Maybe I give it too much power, but I do feel like there are a lot of people my age longing for a time where, at least culturally, there was more room for being intellectual, deliberate, difficult. Maybe we are going to return to it, though..”
For many people, John Fahey will be the obvious touchstone for what Tyler is doing here. For me, the nostalgic potency of Tyler’s music seems reminiscent of Robbie Basho as well, without his eccentricities. On the level of technique, others have cited the Nashville session genius Reggie Young – that was Young playing lead on Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds and “ In The Ghetto” and the big hits by the Box Tops, such as “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby”…..Some have gone even further back to compare Tyler’s picking style to that of Mr Tambourine Man himself, Bruce Langhorne.
All these are reference points to be proud of : Tyler really is that good. The son of two Nashville songwriters (who wrote hits for Eddie Rabbitt and the Oak Ridge Boys ) he and his sister still live in that town, where they co-own and run a local bar. The entire Impossible Truth album is worth your while – it takes you in deeper and deeper every time – but here are a few samplers. They’re mainly live renditions of the album tracks, but the differences are minimal ; the advantage lies in being able is see finger picking of this quality, up close.
“Cadillac Desert” sounds like a monument to loneliness – the title comes from the book by the environmentalist Marc Reisner, about the vanishing supplies of water in the western US – and its probably the most Fahey-like of all the tracks on the album. For the most Basho-like track, there’s this stunning version of “The Geography of Nowhere”. A bit distractingly, the official video for “ A Portrait of Sarah” has been filmed as a homage to the film Two Lane Blacktop. Lastly, there are a couple of earlier tracks, live renditions of tracks from his debut album Behold The Spirit – including the sweetly haunting (and haunted) “Missionary Ridge” site of this Civil War battle fought in 1863, near Chattanooga.
Throughout his work, the guy has a keen sense of the links between personal geography and physical spaces.