Angel Olsen’s first EP, Strange Cacti, released via cassette through Bathetic, is sacred to a lot. Boys, girls—sacred nonetheless. I’ve got my memory, as do you. Mine exists in a time where I was living with my mother in 2010, saving up to move to New York. I’d queue up “Drunk and with Dreams” on my brother’s old cassette player to shower to. And while I was falling for the idea of this tortured angelic dreamer bellowing out of the rattling speakers of an old ‘90s Christmas gift, I was mutually considering the thought of my mom hearing her 25-year-old son listening to this maudlin chanteuse at full volume in the bathroom, thinking to herself, “Well, I guess I’ve got two fags for sons.” Four years later, we've got an artist in the midst of creating a sound less for the coffee shop and the solitary romancer in the shower and more for the enjoyment of those challenged by one-dimensional spirit.
In her first for Jagjaguwar, Olsen tags a new band to her back composed of Josh Jaeger on skins and Stewart Bronaugh on bass. Olsen mostly forgoes her modest acoustic thumbing present on Strange Cacti and Half Way Home in favor of a more electric-leaning sound, supplemented with late-aughts San Francisco meets Southern-fried psych accent of tremolo and fuzz. This is a compelling yet trite, nuanced rhythmic stray from her country strokes on Half Way Home’s “Lonely Universe” and the wet bows and distorted strums of “Sweet Drums” off the Sleepwalker 7”. The progression of Olsen’s guitar work is noteworthy—especially on the mini-solos of “High & Wild” and “Lights Out”—but Burn Your Fire For No Witness becomes a mess of an album once it hits its awkward B-side. The most notable difference: lack of the homogenized psych-pop accessibility of the A-side and lack of why we listen to Olsen in the first place: her vocal register.
The title is pleasantly mature for an artist on the rise. It’s the big untold in the Big City. One expressed so eloquently in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink. You hide away, toil on your craft, perfect your shit in the shelter of your lair. And only once that goal of yours is accomplished, it is then when you are allowed to go out and celebrate that personal triumph of yours. You gotta earn sticking that key up your nose in a seedy bar bathroom. Otherwise you’re just some idyllic junky schmuck whose dreams only manifest into a hangover and a lot of doubtful peers. Those who are creating are unseen, those who are acting are seen. Alas, personal victories don’t always translate so well, Barton.
It’s not that the songs featured on BYFFNW aren’t exceptional. The entirety of the A-side has a fantastic flow and producer John Congleton did a worthy job of polishing Olsen’s sound and incorporating multi-tracked vocals to create some truly flooring hooks. But it’s hard to consider an album in its entirety when one half delivers a progressing style that is almost absent on the back. It’s almost like Congleton was like, “We’ll throw 'em a curveball on the A, and then give 'em a second helping of Half Way Home on the B.” Not only that, but the last track, “Windows”, comes out of nowhere with a Mazzy Star meets Lower Dens bend that could very well have fit in the meat of the album with a more strategic track listing. Maybe even switching “White Fire”—which contains the album’s title in its lyrics—for “Windows” would’ve helped the flow of the album as a whole without weakening the power of the A-side.
The album has already received such positive attention it’s almost as though the powers that be were prepping her for a forced “breakthrough” by connecting her with a bigger label and more established producer (Congleton recently produced The Walkmen’s Lisbon)—tying her folk traits with a more accessible indie-psych sound. Don’t be surprised when Olsen starts opening for the likes of The Black Keys with a Rolling Stone spread to boot later this year.
But maybe I’m just some asshole bangin’ out Budweiser pounders who thinks the producer strong-armed one of the best voices of our generation. Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding an artist who is the function of an identity in limbo—influenced by the past and the external pressures of a more-certain future.