Review/Listen: Angel Olsen – Half Way Home

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Angel Olsen‘s Half Way Home is being released on CD, which is just as well as it deserves to be out there and as accessible as possible. Astonishing critics upon its release last year, her second release on Bathetic Records was a bolt from the blue.

From the album’s opening track, “Acrobat,” Olsen simultaneously announces and differentiates herself in an industry where heads all around were scratched as people sought to place her.

New Kate Bush? No, not nearly as whimsical. Is she the next Cat Power? There’s something more low-key and dour about Olsen, a heaviness to her voice and delivery that Chan Marshall has never had. It’s close to the same feeling that spread like a miasma when Joanna Newsom appeared for the first time – where does she fit? Newsom herself has changed and matured in a class of her own, so that’s another failed comparison.

It is a credit to Angel Olsen that she is bringing something new to a tired scene where there is such difficulty to slot her in anywhere. It’s part of what  makes Half Way Home such a joy to listen to. If she needs to be pigeonholed, it would be as the spiritual successor to Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian/Cree singer who has enjoyed a long and prosperous career as a singer-activist with a voice that is brittle and mournfully beautiful. There’s also a pinch of Karen Dalton and a little bit of Ani DiFranco sass on tracks like “Lonely Universe”, which sounds like “Ruby Tuesday” sung into a well.

Here, though, Angel Olsen largely stands on her own. “Acrobat” and “Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow” are Half Way Home‘s most discordant but confronting tracks. The others, like slow-burning “Tiniest Seed” and the swishy percussion-laden “The Sky Opened Up” are generally in one gear – drawn-out and sad expiations of grief.

The tone of the album is matched by the cover art; monochrome expanses are exactly what you get on Half Way Home, with hints of hope. The meditative nature of the album’s tracks are balanced by slightly more adventurous and pop-friendly songs, like the jaunty anthem to the lovelorn that is “The Waiting.” “Free”, in particular, is a gentle love song that is a welcome throwback to the Laurel Canyon period of artists such as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

As mentioned above, there is something wonderfully inexplicable about Angel Olsen that defies the many possible comparisons. Half Way Home is a statement of intent that is never quite as black and white as its cover. For a debut album, it is surprisingly strong, with Olsen’s voice as the centerpiece, backed by arrangements that never submerge or infringe upon it.

There is, as one would expect from a brand new debut, something about Half Way Home that eventually palls, and without careful listening, at times the songs can blend into one another. This feeling of disconnection is mostly fleeting, however.

It is a given that once she is more established and confident, Olsen will tear up the blueprint that brought her here. In the fullness of time, as she grows and develops, so too will her sound and the comparisons tacked onto her will become redundant. Rather than being an echo of great artists before, she herself, with enough support and agency, could very well join them. The signs – such as her move to Jagjaguwar this April and paying her dues touring with Will Oldham – are promising.

Half Way Home is a debut that is almost startlingly good. The rough edges and earnest posturing you usually hear amidst the excitement of finally being in a studio and inking deals is at a minimum here. It almost seems to expand, so much so that it’s the only thing rattling around in your head hours later.

Its dolorous nature is almost refreshing – thank God there is someone willing to break away from the cacophony of jangles and cutesy tree-climbing twee that is constantly churned out by women in indie – everyone from First Aid Kit to She & Him seem to be playing around in dress-up boxes and gaining their musical sensibilities on toy Casios. Half Way Home is something more earthy and honest and with experience and time, Angel Olsen will come into her own. I’d bet my homemade ukelele on it.

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