LIVE REVIEW: Angel Olsen @ Glasslands 5-19-13

The first twangy strains of Angel Olsen’s “Lonely Universe” drift over a packed crowd at Glasslands.  The girl next to me goes breathless.  She swoons, gasping this is my jam as though we’re teenagers and Rihanna just came on the radio, but Olsen’s measured, sorrow-tinged crooning is far from club jam, and the girl standing next to me is actually Sharon Van Etten.

Angel Olsen at Glasslands.
Angel Olsen at Glasslands.

This is how you know Angel Olsen is the next thing in indie folk – her biggest fans are the heaviest hitters in the same genre.  Whether it’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy asking her to join up with his Cairo Gang or Marissa Nadler posting a lilting version of a Richard and Linda Thompson song the two covered together on soundcloud, Olsen is poised to follow the same trajectory.

The singer-songwriter honed her unique vocals by recording homemade tapes as a teenager in St. Louis before relocating to Chicago.  It was there that she perfected her warbling, soulful wail, channeling something at once mournful and powerful.  She released a six-song EP, Strange Cacti, on Bathetic in 2010, and it managed to grab the attention of the right people.  Soon after, she was introduced to Will Oldham through Emmett Kelly, and her work with the pair taught her the joys of singing with a full band, learning harmonies and traditional folk songs while writing the material that would appear on last year’s stunning full-length debut, Half Way Home.  Jagjaguwar is set to release her next offering, having signed her in April of this year, so at this point there’s pretty much nothing stopping Angel Olsen.

Whether her confidence is innate or bolstered by the reality of impending success, Olsen is far from a shrinking violet onstage.  Lyrically, her songs are intimate and confessional, even seeming forlorn at times, but she infused them with an unflinching fierceness during her set at Glasslands last Sunday.  Comprised mainly of familiar material, the live renditions were fleshed out by a full band that even included lush cello.  It was a pleasant surprise to hear these usually sparse songs transformed, but the most poignant and heart-wrenching moments came during an encore in which she performed solo, calling on the same unabashed strength she’d displayed with four other musicians behind her.  It was impossible to keep my eyes from welling up, and I imagine that this was the case for many other attendees.

Olsen might be billed as singer-songwriter but in a way she’s also a hypnotist, able to project a compelling electricity into a crowded room; the show that night was sold out but there were moments when I could have been the only person there.  Part of that is in the revealing nature of the stories she is willing to sing, but there is also magic and seduction in the space she creates just by singing at all.  With that voice, names from a telephone book might sound just as devastating.  Instead, she casually delivers lines like “it’s known that the tiniest seed is both simple and wild” and it comes off simultaneously as winsome musing and a kind of warning; simple and wild are the perfect pair of words to describe Olsen herself.  What comes next from her could be totally unexpected, but it is sure to possess all the timeless allure that’s captivated fans and her musical contemporaries alike.

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