PLAYING CINCY: Pop Empire Talk “Novena,” Finding Their Sound & Incense

Pop Empire / Novena

Cincinnati trio Pop Empire recently dropped their nine-track album, Novena. The indie-rock outfit will head out on a supporting tour this month.

Novena marks the 10-year-old group’s first full-length album since 2014’s Future Blues and the first album with the group’s current lineup – founding member Henry Wilson, guitarist Katrina Eresman, and drummer Jake Langknecht.

Teased with singles “Sister Chaos,” “Black Wine,” and “For Maggie,” the record navigates glittery soundscapes of psychedelic and progressive rock, tied together by what the band labels as a feeling of “familiarity.”

Here, Henry, Katrina, and Jake talk about their recording process and learning to communicate as a band, which ultimately led to Pop Empire finding its unique sonic home in Novena. The bandmates also discuss the virtue of patience, studio magic, and the helpful scents of Nicki Minaj incense.

Stream Novena and check out their upcoming tour dates below.

AF: Congrats on your new album! Can you tell me about some of the underlying themes?

H: The songs came from each of us throughout different periods of time. Really what you hear on this album, is just the three of us playing in a room together and something, that the three of us have developed over a couple years, that is its own distinct sound. It’s certainly got plenty of familiar influences. I think there’s a lot of themes in the album that tie the songs together.

J: The recording of the album took place over a good couple of months. It was just the three of us, we didn’t really have anybody else’s time we were occupying and we weren’t spending a bunch of money at a studio. We were in a familiar space and we could really take our time to run takes of the songs, as many times as we needed to. Some of them hadn’t really been written or arranged, to a large degree, yet. As different as the songs might seem at first listen, from song to song, I think to all of us there is definitely a feeling of cohesion between them. We hammered them out in the same process and the same place with a lot of patience.

AF: What can you tell me about the significance of the title, Novena?

H: I would get in trouble if I didn’t give credit to my mother for actually coming up with the name, she suggested it. We had tried a bunch of titles—the album had come together long before the title was given. The number nine is significant—there’s nine songs on the album. The number nine is related to the word Novena, which means a nine-fold in Latin. It refers to an ancient form of prayer that was also adopted into Catholicism, which is a nine-day prayer in a traditional form. The reason for the number nine sounds, like, way more Hocus-Pocus than I really am [laughing].

AF: This is Pop Empire’s first album since 2014 and with the new band members. How does Novena differ from Future Blues?

K: The way that I feel all the songs are tied together in one piece is that we were trying to write them before we learned how to communicate as a band and as friends. Personally, I was communicating through the songs. I joined this band on a tour last minute so I came in and literally learned the guitar parts to play so it was very impersonal to me and I did that for a long time. I think that there was a period of time when we were trying to work on these songs and I was sort of, like, trying to play in that style still, like as the old guitarist, and fill those shoes. And then there was some point where I connected more. I think in general, I’m a little less traditionally skilled—a little bit more dirty, dissonant, and noisy as a guitarist. So now that I could see it in my own way I think that influenced the style, ‘cause all the songs existed in some form, and some of them for a really long time.

AF: What is each of your favorite song on the album?

K: I would say I’m surprised by how much I ended up liking “Riding The Crest” ‘cause it was very frustrating for a long time. I didn’t know what to do with it. And then it became something real different than what it was.

H: This is the song that, for Pop Empire nerds out there, was technically released as a bonus track on a Bandcamp download. Well, there was a song with the same name. It’s pretty vastly different. There was definitely a direct evolution from the beginning of the song into what it is now.

K: Now, it’s totally made me tear up before. It’s a really nice, emotive song.

AF: You’re also going on tour this month. Any new places for you?

H: I think there will be some new in-between spots. Even though Cincinnati is so close to so many towns, there are still lot of places we haven’t gone to as a band.

AF: Where do you draw inspiration from?

J: There’s a lot. Everything that I listen to nine months prior probably influenced this album. But the songs didn’t really come from any particular place except from me. It was natural enough with my style and the way I played, and our style, driving the album. We’ve been a band—and I’ve been playing with Henry for five years or more and I’ve known Katy now for two years—so we’ve established our own sound. I feel like the album itself had a sound before we even touched it.

K: Your style is like dark blocks. Dark-colored shapes and blocks–that’s how I picture your style, visually. That’s where you got your influence [laughing].

J: [Laughing] Cool.

K: Yeah, I don’t know for me either. I think I ended up thinking in the context of Drone-y music, like really heavy playing. I don’t like consciously point to people that I am inspired by, but I do find myself finding influence from bands.

H: For me, it’s going to be a lot of old stuff. A lot of 20’s and 30’s. While we were making this album we weren’t even listening to any of the same stuff. We just knew what sound the songs had once we heard it. When they’re all played together, to me, the songs all have to do with evoking a very calming and reassuring presence that feels very familiar, from like before you were born. If that kind of presence could be found, that’s what all of these songs were trying to go for.

AF: So maybe, stylistically, if there weren’t too many outside influences, this album was just you hitting your collective stride?

K: I think it could be. I’ve definitely read interviews where people will be like, ‘Oh, we just went in the studio and it was just there,’ and that’s kind of messed with my head because I have to try and would get frustrated if something didn’t come immediately. So I don’t like to say that, but on the other hand it is kind of what happened with this album. We were just working really hard all winter, over and over and over, and just kind of somehow ended up coming together. It showed that there is like a magic that can happen when we connect as musicians, it just took a while.

H: I think that’s a really good point. To anybody that wants to learn something, this absolutely is something that requires grit and perseverance. It was really tough, there were plenty of times where it could have felt easier to give up on the project, but we really stuck through it. The album only happened because of that.

AF: Exactly. What are some key takeaways you learned from recording this album?

J: We really came together as these three people. But also, for me, I never had the opportunity to really like take time in recording and be really patient with my parts. Short of deriving expectations—how do you get to where you have a song that is presentable as a final iteration? Both through the tools you need to use and also the working process.

H: Also, we used lots of incense to conjure the moments we were trying to create.

K: We had a Nicki Minaj incense.

H: And Ariana Grande.

AF: What do those smell like?

J: Who can say [laughing]?

K: Also, a little Charcuterie tray is very nice.

H: Yes, meats and cheeses and a fridge full of sparkling water.


9/4 – Fort Wayne, IN @ The Brass Rail
9/5 – Chicago, IL @ The Owl
9/7 – Minneapolis, MN @ Palmer’s Bar
9/9 – Nashville, TN @ The East Room
9/19 – Pittsburgh, PA @ The Mr. Roboto Project
9/20 – Philadelphia, PA @ House Show – RSVP for address
9/21 – Brooklyn, NY @ Knitting Factory
9/23 – Saratoga Springs, NY @ Desperate Annie’s

ALBUM REVIEW: Kishi Bashi “Sonderlust”


The music we’ve come to expect from Kishi Bashi has a certain flair for the ethereal, the magical, and the adventurous. His latest album Sonderlust isn’t a deviation from this; rather, it jumps right into the style and sound that embodies this talented musician.

Sonderlust begins with the single “m’lover,” introducing the album with a gentle tinkling of keys and strings that’ll prick your eardrums and immediately captivate your heart. Pips and pops scattered throughout the track behind Kishi Bashi’s charming vocals as he seductively croons about wanting someone to be his lover—listening to it is pretty much a necessary aural experience. (Seriously, this track is just so many different types of sexy.) The next song, “Hey Big Star,” is as sparkly and otherworldly as a track with the word “star” in the title should be. It’s a true toe-tapper, with an easy-t0-follow beat and a poppy, addictive rhythm. The following track holds a more analog feel to it, sounding like a song from an old Super Nintendo video game soundtrack. It’s a slower jam to groove to, one that feels reminiscent of a chill 80s love song in certain ways. “Can’t Let Go, Juno” holds an air of impending drama, with its heavier (yet still beautifully ethereal) sound. Toward the end, it breaks off into an entrancing keyboard solo, carrying you through its space and time with delicate tinkling.

In the middle of the album, you reach the climax and resolution of the built-up tension from the previous track in “Ode to my Next Life.” It feels alien and galactic: like you can see yourself walking along the surface of the moon in a spacesuit, defying gravity while this soundtracks your life. It’s a confidence boosting, ego touting song, which, if we’re being totally honest, should probably become a necessity on all albums moving forward. “Who’d You Kill” is smooth and savory, yet quirky, calling to mind the type of music you might hear in a movie like “Ocean’s 11,” but with a very Kishi Bashi twist added to it. “Why Don’t You Answer Me” has a sense of urgency to its fast-paced beat, as if something depends on an answer to its posed titular question, and “Flame on Flame (a Slow Dirge)” feels like a perfect continuation of the previous track. It flows together perfectly, slowing the previous vibe down in a natural way where a listener won’t feel disjointed or jarred. Sonderlust closes out with Kishi Bashi’s fun, energetic single “Honeybody.” It’s a pop song that reaches out and grabs you, then holds you close to dance you around the room. It’s a fantastic way to end an album because it leaves you in a place where you need to hear the entirety of it again immediately and will probably find yourself clicking replay as soon as it closes.

So what are you waiting for? Hop on the Kishi Bashi bandwagon (if you haven’t already, that is).

PLAYING DETROIT: Zoos of Berlin “Instant Evening”


It’s been three years since Detroit’s sonically poignant pioneers of quietly turbulent indie rock, Zoos of Berlin, last full-length release. Earlier this month, Collin Dupuis, Will Yates, Matthew Howard, Daniel I. Clark and Trevor Naud returned with an open door and a detour. An oceanic space dive, bridging the waters and atmospheric distances between way up and deep down, Instant Evening is a mystifying abstraction and a perilously purifying journey that renounces gravity in the same breath from which it praises it. The band is asking us to pretend that this is their first record which would displace 2013’s pleasantly unstable Lucifer in the Rain and their airily sedated debut record Taxis from 2009. But maybe they’re right to ask this of us. After all, what Zoos of Berlin has masterfully achieved with Instant Evening is the aural embodiment of time lapsed and time stopped and in several cases time reversed. A transcendental escapist mirror of the self and the whole, Zoos latest, first record is a new language in a native voice.

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Their emblematic cadence is more well-rounded here, more complete as assisted by their collective patient tonality and fluid melodic velocity. There are comparable moments to the likes of Belle and Sebastian, LCD Soundsystem and most notably the late David Bowie’s final opus Black Star, but the comparisons aren’t a distraction as they usually tend to be. In fact, what makes Instant Evening an instant “yes” is its commitment to not only sound but to its deeply personal and uniquely porous temperament and languish whimsy. The opening track “Rush at the Bend” is an upbeat whirling dervish that uncorks the intent of the record, a gentle tug and ripping of the seams. The delicate balancing of layers within layers never feels thick or overthought. Case and point, “Spring from the Cell” an echoey and deliberate lamination of vocal harmonies, twinkling prom-night synths and dreamy acoustics. As the album progresses, the sensationalized belief that night is approaching grows apparent. “A Clock Would Never Tell” is a parade processional love song that begs to come in from the dark and the cold and leads shortly into “Always Fine with Orphan” a glittering and robust longing-for-summer anthem that manages to braid melancholy with pleasant memories of making love under the sun. We are left with the orbit-less “North Star on the Hill” which poetically stands alone on the record. Like hands missing each other in the night, gracing only fingertips before the invisible tethers pull and draw them apart, the albums closer is unassuming in its heartbreak. A swallowing of stars and a ghost caress, Instant Evening ends with an ellipsis.

Listen to the full stream below:


EP REVIEW: Ex Reyes “Do Something”


Flowery and airy, carrying you away from the hellscape that our country has become in the last two weeks to instead deliver you to a place where beauty and comfort exists is Ex Reyes’ new EP Do Something.

The EP starts out with their single “Bad Timing,” which is a jazzy, upbeat track that showcases falsetto vocals from Ex Reyes, aka Mikey Hart. It’s epiphanic and revelatory, which is a perfect lead into the piece as a whole. It also flows smoothly into the next track, “If U Come Runnin,” which will tinkle around your head for days with its quirky synths that spiral away.

From there, you’ll experience “Keeping You in Line,” which will do anything but that. You’ll feel yourself floating this way and that throughout this track as the music washes over you and transports you to a different world. Following that is a sobering dose of reality from the brief interlude track “Hard to Stand,” which will ground you after your mysterious journey from the prior song. The EP closes out with “Where U Callin From,” which features Wild Belle. With brassy elements that recall ska days of yesteryear and tinkling keys that dance up and down your spine, it’s a fantastic note to end the album on. Plus, Wild Belle and Ex Reyes’ vocals seamlessly complement one another.

If you’re looking for a bit of music to help you realign and center your soul, then you’ve found the artist to follow.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cool Company “Slice of Paradise”

Cool Co 1

You may recognize Cool Company from a few of the recent reviews we’ve done on them. We featured their single “Slice of Paradise” and chatted with them for a brief interview on their inspirations and upcoming work, and now we’re here to showcase the release of their full-length album Slice of Paradise.

Cool Company is a hip-hop/R&B duo made up of two fellas based in Bushwick, Brooklyn: Yannick Hughes (Cool Yan) and Matt Fishman (Fat Matt). The pair met back in 2006 during a choir class and have been making chill, laid-back jams together since 2012. At first, it was just friends making music together, but that relationship quickly expanded to a more serious musical adventure, which led to the May 2013 debut of their self-titled full-length.

After their first LP dropped, Cool Company went on to release their popular single “Call You Back” in November 2014. It was a piece that catapulted the band into a new direction: It led to a publishing deal with CDF Records in Switzerland and Italy, and it was also a showcase of Fat Matt’s producing skills, as the single was released with a remix produced in-house by Matt.

In 2015, the duo released their poppy EP Summer Daze, and some remixes from pieces on the EP soon followed in 2016. However, the band was relatively dormant until June 2016, until they released their first single from Slice of Paradise, “Why You Gotta Make Me Do It.”

Slice of Paradise itself is a deviation from the more poppy side of what the band had been putting out so far, and it instead focuses on laid-back tracks that meld together in a seamless blend and is sprinkled throughout with multiple interludes. It almost feels like you’re listening to one long song; the album overall is cohesive and smooth, perfect to listen to on a relaxing afternoon.

It begins with “When Did We Get so High?,” which is the musical equivalent to that feeling you get when you open a new book and know within the first page that you’re going to have a hard time putting it down. It drags you in with gospel-esque singing and smooth rapping, then transitions into the next track, “Ride or Die” without missing a beat. This second track brings a more upbeat, fun energy to it, complete with expert producing. “Faded” goes a step further to kick it into a more energetic gear; it’s tantalizing and dream-like, moving through your mind in a blur –before you realize it, the track is over, and you’re moving onto the next one. After that follows the titular track, which is sexy and glamorous, making it the perfect centerpiece of the album.

After the first interlude, “Hopeless,” the album moves onto “Tuck You In.” It’s a sweet yet savory track that’ll make you want to get down in more than one sense. “End of the Night” is full of titillating keys and vibrant synths, and “Stare and Smile” takes the production to another level. “Habit” is an eccentric yet relaxed track that’ll fully immerse you into the album (if that hasn’t already happened, anyway).

Following yet another interlude, “Headphones,” is the enjoyable and much-awaited “Why You Gotta Make Me Do It.” It’s full of switchbacks that make your head spin, but in the best way possible–it’s an exciting track to keep on repeat. From there, we reach the final interlude, “$50,” and close the album out with “Life.” As its name suggests, it vivacious and stunning; it’s a great way to end a piece that has most definitely provided its listeners with ample material to groove on.

Slice of Paradise overall is a fun, chilled out album that, at times, will make you want to dance and then switch in one seamless motion to wanting to Netflix and chill. It’s seamless production, never-ending supply of synths, and fresh raps make it an album to digest as soon as you have the time to devout to it.

ALBUM REVIEW: Regina Spektor “Remember Us to Life”


It’s been some time since our eardrums have been graced by new music from Regina Spektor. At long last, the Russian-born New York-bred songstress has released a new full-length, Remember Us to Life, and while it isn’t a total deviation from her past works, it was also incredibly much-needed.

The album kicks off with her leading single from the piece, “Bleeding Heart.” It sees Spektor flexing her usual impressive vocal range, as well as an overall upbeat and high-spirited aura. It tinkles around in your head and ends on a more aggressive note, promising coming music that you’ll be captivated by. “Older and Taller” and “Grand Hotel” take more sentimental tones, which is completely expected with Spektor–a mix of high and low energies interspersed with intimacy and vulnerability.

From there, the album takes a turn toward the quirky and ethereal with “Small Bill$,” and just as quickly switchbacks to contemplative and personal with “The Light.” The back and forth continues as “Tornadoland” is full of energetic keys while “Obsolete” takes more of a solemn approach.

If you’re looking for a new sound and a reinvention from Spektor, then you might find yourself disappointed. However, if you’re looking for good vibe-y music and the talents of Regina Spektor that we’ve all come to know and love, then you’ll be head over heels for Remember Us to Life.

PLAYING DETROIT: Anna Ash “Floodlights”


Michigan native and L.A resident, Anna Ash is holding on, not back. A sincere sorceress of internal voyeurism, Ash’s fragile confidence stands firm ground and shines brightly on her sophomore record Floodlights released earlier this week. Slide guitar and dusty, feathered percussion dip and sway against Ash’s strikingly pure and piercing songbird soprano. Floodlights is a poignant display of a love run dry and/or a love gone awry that rolls with the patience of an impending storm on the horizon; lightening without the thunder.

Is Floodlights a country record? Maybe. It tangos with rock n roll attitude on occasion and yanks on some folky heartstrings, too. But beyond genre displacement, the record is a grand achievement in story telling, quietly exposing the deepest layers of epidermis with a tender honesty that doesn’t require categorization, only reflection.

Recorded in Minnesota, mastered on the West Coast and the reprisal of Ash’s Michigan band (Joe Dart, Julian Allen, and James Cornelison) Floodlights creation is as well traveled as the pictorial pastures and valleys the album dares to explore. “Player” is finger waving, audacious dose of told-you-so whereas Ash’s Lucinda Williams cover “Fruits of my Labor” is a sensual peach bite coated in sultry regret and the track “Hold On” is a bouncy series of what-if’s and hypothetical missteps. No ground is left uncovered on Floodlights but it isn’t until the title/closing track that we are forced to our knees after a perilously raw journey through Ash’s beautifully tormented history. Barely exceeding a whisper, Ash compares the shake of an old car to the way her voice warbles when she lies, professing that “It ain’t gonna kill you to sleep alone once and a while.” A heart wrenching, steering wheel clenching kiss goodbye to us, to them, to who she is or was, “Floodlights” as a singular track and as a collection rattles with a tender brutality that is relatable and malleable, melted and frozen.

Mostly Midwest premiered the album this week and is streaming it in it’s entirety now. Check out the playful track “Player” below:

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PLAYING DETROIT: Ohtis “Runnin'”

adam by kenny

The return of Adam Pressley (Prussia, Jamaican Queens) and Sam Swinson’s beloved project, Ohtis, is really good news. Formed and broken-up in Illinois while currently reunited and divided between LA and Detroit, Ohtis premiered the first track “Runnin'” off of their forthcoming album Bobo, Dad, and Holy Ghost. 

“Runnin'” feels like something out of 2008. A story-driven, soft spoken Fleet Foxes-esque tale or a sad desert realization with dampened slide guitar wading in and out circa Wilco’s self-titled record.  Ohtis brings us a track that feels like a hand floating out of the window of a silent car ride, the wind pushing back against a palm telling it what direction to go, the only conversation being the sound of air escaping between parted fingers.

The track opens with: “The expression you were wearing of emotional pain / Like anybody struggling to keep themselves sane,” that set the tone of Ohtis’ painterly Americana breed of misery. It’s a song about surrender, drunk driving through the plains and crossed fingers for a lovers return. The chorus drifts away from uncertainty and sways towards an invitation into a new past with the line: “We together will be better than me.”

With “Runnin’,” Ohtis has delivered an atypical strain of heartbreak that hones in on what’s to be gained, not what has been lost. The experience feels as it was seen through two sets of eyes, although only one voice remembers everything the eyes had seen. It isn’t until a female voice sneaks into the final reprise of the chorus that you feel that resolve is near and the next adventure even closer.

Ohtis plays a set in Ferndale this Saturday, July 16 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Pig & Whiskey Festival.


PLAYING DETROIT: Mountains and Rainbows “Particles”


Once hailed “The Best Band That Doesn’t Have an Album” pysch-rockers Mountains and Rainbows can finally re-categorize themselves.  After bouncing around for almost a decade with nothing but a cassette tape and some scattered demos, Mountains and Rainbows caught the ears of  Thee Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer after sharing a bill with the head rattling 70s art punk revivalist foursome last year. Dwyer signed them to Castle Face Records and released their double debut LP Particles last month. Particles is more than an album, though. It’s a transient, transcendent head trip that sweats and absorbs in equal measure. There is a boldness to the album as an adventure through time and memory, trailing across stateliness and atmospheric boundaries, that convinces you to overturn yourself as if you were some government implemented barrier between happiness and obligation. Particles is salty and dry, thirst inducing and never quenching.  It is that very thirst that makes Mountains and Rainbows’ long awaited exploration of chaos so surprisingly satisfying. It’s a high without the hangover.

It’s hard to consider the album as individual tracks. The songs blend together, not monotonously or statically, but with a meticulously reckless smashing. Each song strikes one another forcing tinier and finer divides like an astral phenomena we read about but never actually see. Sludgy, strung out Velvet Underground-esque track “Fancies” breaks the album up and clocks in at just over ten minutes. It’s anxious and uneasy and feels more like a band warmup where the instruments sound like vocals and the vocals are a series of warbled announcements. This is a complete departure from the bouncy beach party track “How You Spend Your Time,”  which is tightly composed and fulfills the albums strained pop tendency. Mountains and Rainbows play with distance and warped dissonance, which invites a cosmic spacial awareness that lends itself to feeling like fabric ripped at the seams. Drums seem to interrupt, the guitars are manic and distressed and the bass is spastically metallic. These elements crowd the vocals in such a way that it often feels like attempts to suffocate, but also is aurally victorious at regaining breath. Considering it is their first “proper” release, Particles is a fully formed thought that is not for the faint of heart, rather for those whose heart beat persistently askew.

Particles is streaming over at Hype Machine.

Listen to the track “How You Spend Your Time” below:

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Mountains and Rainbows record release show wag Bonny Doon, Feelings and Dead Beat Beat at El Club, Detroit 6/24



ALBUM REVIEW: Sam Smith “In the Lonely Hour”


British crooner Sam Smith finally released his debut album, “In the Lonely Hour”, on May 26 with Capitol Records. After a year prepping for his debut with his critically acclaimed EP “Nirvana” and features on hit songs with Disclosure and Naughty Boy on top of touring even before his album was released, Smith has gained wide recognition not just in his home country but in the U.S. as well. With all these accolades and even TV exposure – on Saturday Night Live no less – it’s no wonder that “In the Lonely Hour” became one of the most anticipated albums of 2014.

The biggest reason for his steadily growing exposure is most likely his powerful, heartbreaking voice. Smith can sing and when he does, everyone will stop and listen and feel a bit more breathless than before. He doesn’t grasp for notes, he easily caresses them and glides through them with incredible passion and dedication. He’s fearless in his vocals, daring to soar to the highest notes and play with dynamics.

Of course with this sort of voice, he especially shines in the genre of “tear-inducing, earth shattering unrequited love music” which is basically the premise for “In the Lonely Hour”. Most of the songs on the album are mid to slow tempo appeals to a lover that will never return Smith’s feelings. The instrumentals also range from isolating guitar lines to grand orchestral movements, all adding to the sweeping loneliness that Smith reinforces with his moving vocals. But other than Smith’s phenomenal voice, there isn’t anything here that could really separate it from other sorrowful, self-pitying albums. The lyrics aren’t particularly arresting; sometimes they almost seem surface-level and at other times, they’re nearly unhealthy in their obsession over this unreturned feeling. It’s not an album you should listen to in large doses unless you want to be pulled down into the abyss of self-loathing and hopelessness.

If this album was put on a heart monitor, it would be a relatively even line with spikes in the beginning for “Money on My Mind” and “Stay with Me” and at the end for “Lay Me Down”, which all happen to be singles. The middle of the album is forgettable although “Like I Can” and “Life Support” attempt to change the pacing. Overall, it’s a solid and safe debut; the only experimentation Smith tries is with his own voice. In a way, it’s somewhat unsatisfying because with such vocal talent, he has a chance to explore different kinds of instrumentation and lyrics. Even if he’s making his words accessible to a wider audience, perhaps something more personal, more specific would’ve given more life to his songs. It’s a concrete start and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. “In the Lonely Hour” is available now in the UK and will be released in the US on June 17.

ALBUM REVIEW: Angel Olsen “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”

Burn Your Fire Album

She’s the one with the haunting warble, sometimes menacing or self-deprecating, but always a bit fragile and always a bit bold. Angel Olsen is a singer-songwriter with a unique talent for forging emotional connections with her listeners—that is, the ability to make any member of her audience freeze, cry, or reach deep into some hollow part of themselves. For her newest album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her unwavering self-possession is strong as ever, stretched across more present instrumentation and, of course, her gorgeous crooning.

The album is sensitive, soft, subtle, occasionally sweet, and all together that complexity makes it very human. Her uncertainty about what it means to be lonely, about what she truly feels, is what makes these songs so engaging. This ambiguity makes it easy for the listener to enter that space and recall their own inexplicable melancholy. Her voice is difficult to describe, a bit like folk singer Karen Dalton or Emmylou Harris; shaky, but clear.

Burn Your Fire For No Witness begins with “Unfuck the World.” For such a powerful title, this song is incredibly soft. There’s an immediate sense of interiority, a passiveness: “Here’s to thinking that this all meant so much more / I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door.” But her voice soars in the chorus with a lo-fi melancholy that is just heartbreaking: “I am the only one now / You may not be around,” she repeats and repeats like a mantra, a tiny peek into her aloneness. Normally, break-up songs can get a bit irritating, especially when they harp on a lover’s absence. This song is all personal reflection, rather than a reflection on the other person or even the relationship itself.

Angel Olsen

In “White Fire,” the track the album is named for, her vocals sound almost dead. The song itself is immediately sad, and there are waves of guitar strumming that paint a dark atmosphere. She tells us herself: “Everything is tragic / It all just falls apart.” From here, we move into an uncomfortably empty mind. Even when she’s singing about anger or bitterness, she’s nearly flat, but it conveys as much as if she’d been shaky or close to tears. In fact, it’s more effective than singing with movement, at least for this song, which describes Olsen’s feelings of disillusionment. You’re only “fierce and light and young,” she tells us, “When you don’t know that you’re wrong / or just how wrong you are.” This may be my favorite track.

Olsen plays up the guitar and drums in “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “High & Wild.” Both songs are forcefully catchy in an unexpected way. “Forgiven/Forgotten” has heavy drums and bass and the words drive you through with repetition. Her voice is bolder and far more scornful in “High & Wild” with its grungy riffs. It’s not as sad as most of the other songs, and there’s a powerful melody that recalls ’60s femme rock. It comes close to being somber, but then she sarcastically sings: “Well, this would all be so much easier / if I had nothing to say.”

“Hi-five” is another song that positions itself outside of the sorrowful, instead tip-toeing on the edge before diving into bitterness. The simple guitar chords and drums go well with the blues-y, old country lyrics: “I feel so lonesome I could cry.” Olsen’s definitely warbling here, reflecting the movement in the instrumentation. There’s such sudden raw emotion when she shouts “someone who believes” that the entire tone of the song turns around. “Are you lonely, too?” she asks. “So am I,” she says after calling for a hi-five. But then, in a completely delicious twist at the very end she reveals herself: “I’m stuck too / I’m stuck with you.”

The whole album is narrative and extremely emotional, with Olsen occasionally throwing in an endearing word like “darlin.'” There’s also a great deal of experimentation here—songs are different in tone, in rhythm, but they all run smoothly from one to the next. If you’re okay with your own feelings lurching out, and maybe shedding a tear or two that you didn’t know was lurking inside, then give this album a good, long listen.

Check out “White Fire” from Burn Your Fire For No Witness: