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Angel Olsen - Phases (Album Review)

Friday, 10 November 2017 Written by Jacob Brookman

Angel Olsen’s ‘Phases’ - a collection of off-cuts, b-sides and fresh material - follows swiftly after last year’s breakthrough ‘My Woman’ LP, which showcased her talent for indie-folk songwriting alongside distinctive, lo-fi production.

While it lacks the cogency and focus of previous releases, it is an impressively varied record, with elusive, involving lyrics and frequently remarkable singing.

Sweet Dreams feels connected to the Animals and Chris Isaak in its angular-yet-delicate vocal melodies and is a track that - like Fly on the Wall and the single Special - contains deceptively elaborate arrangement amid dirgy guitars and a plodding rhythm section.

Elsewhere, the shuffling California is an acoustic windbreak from the occasionally overpowering waves of reverb.

The lyrics here are literate, personal and mercurial, Olsen seeming to relish the slightly clichéd subject matter: “On the way to California / And I don't mean California literally [...] It's late but I'm maintaining interest in the things that you say / I could listen to you speak all day.”

It’s as though she’s trying to think her way out of romantic reverie, but ultimately gives into it. The vocal delivery on this track is also extraordinary. Olsen darts between falsetto and full-voice with a twisted zeal and fantastical precision that actually recalls Nana Mouskouri or - at a push - Sandy Denny. Superb.

If there is a major criticism, it is that ‘Phases’ doesn’t contain hidden gems that show a brand new side to Olsen’s writing. The benchmark for indie b-sides collections is probably Radiohead’s ‘Airbag/How Am I Driving’, which demonstrated the band’s ability to produce broad commercial indie that was then eschewed in favour of electronic experimentation. You cannot summarise what is being offered here in the same way.

Actually, that suspicion is confirmed by Olsen's tedious, sync-hunting cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than the Rest. It suggests a lack of attention to detail that undercuts an otherwise very interesting record.

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