Folk with a Razor Edge
Missouri singer-songwriter Angel Olsen first appeared on the scene in 2011 with her EP Strange Cacti, around the time when she was working as a backing singer for Bonnie Prince Billy. Her vintage, soulful folk received a further outlet on her first LP, Half Way Home, in 2012, before catching the attention of the label Jagjaguwar. Burn Your Fire For No Witness is Olsen’s first full-band release, recorded in the Appalachian city of Asheville, NC with drummer Josh Jaeger and bassist Stewart Bronaugh. And while Olsen may be just beginning her career, this album has the wisdom, complexity and maturity of a veteran artist.
The album begins with “Unfucktheworld” (perhaps a nod to The Vines song of the opposite sentiment?) with strummed, melodic acoustic guitar and faded out, low alto vocals. The track has a kind of old-fashioned, ‘50s country-western charm with a lyrical bite. “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you,” Olsen sings, but then the love story turns dark: “Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more / …I wanted nothing but for this to be the end.” The song is ultimately more affirmative than defeatist, though—”I am the only one now,” she repeats, over and over, in an affirmative mantra.
This opening track sets the tone for the rest of the album; at times poignant and intimate with a no-nonsense, rocking edge that’s a nod to the flannel-clad grunge of the ‘90s. The singles “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “Hi-Five” fall on the rocking side of the divide. “Forgiven/Forgotten” features upbeat, distorted, hazy guitars and a rapid-fire tempo, while “Hi-Five” is a nod to Olsen’s more country-folk background, with shaking, reverb-heavy guitars, a rambling beat and a vintage country feel that shows off her vocal range. “High & Wild” also falls into this vein, where an oldies-style guitar gives way to a grungy vocal melody, Olsen’s vocal delivery jubilant and cool but with plenty of raspy attitude. “Lights Out” adopts a similar country-blues style, a folksy waltz with full, throaty vocals and a rocking guitar solo.
The album’s centerpiece, though, is arguably “White Fire,” by far the longest and most immersive track on Burn Your Fire. A low, fingerpicked acoustic guitar rumbles in interweaving minor melodies covered with just a hint of static, giving it an old western vibe reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, evoking the arid desolation of the midwestern plains in its subtly twanging guitars and Olsen’s spectral, quavering voice. On “White Fire,” Olsen manages to combine country and grunge—certainly a strange mix, but a hauntingly beautiful one, too. Tracks like “Iota,” a simple, sweet acoustic love song with classic vocals and “Enemy,” a more spare track harkening back to Olsen’s older material, also fall into the more traditional folk category. The closing track, “Windows,” is pretty and delicate, with more fragile vocals, but it doesn’t have quite the same charm as Olsen’s more earthy songs.
Burn Your Fire is a remarkably strong album for such a young musician. Combining elements of folk, vintage country, blues and rock and roll with a distinctive throaty alto, Olsen carves herself a comfortable niche in the contemporary music world. Angel Olsen is definitely someone to keep on your radar.