Strange Cacti EP
Apr 26, 2011 Web Exclusive
Angel Olsen has an old soul. Though her past musical endeavors include touring vocalist with Bonnie "Prince" Billy and his Cairo Gang, and also with Will Oldham in a raucous band called The Babblers, her own musical output (two limited-run DIY cassettes, the Strange Cacti EP which has recently been reissued on vinyl) is much different. While her performances with Bonnie "Prince" Billy featured her as Grace Slick to the Cairo Gang's Jefferson Airplane, Strange Cacti highlights a creative spirit more in line with such jazz singers as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone (incidentally, do yourself a favor and track down Olsen's version of "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair.").
Only six songs in length and relying solely on Olsen's voice and acoustic guitar, Strange Cacti still packs quite a passionate punch. Putting the needle down on the record feels like setting down an old Dinah Washington 78 RPM, with Olsen's gloriously emotive voice serenading through a smoky haze as if from another world, at once enchanting and mysterious. When she sings, "lift me up just to bury me under" over acoustic guitar strum in "Drunk and With Dreams," her pain and yearning are palpable. And in "Creator, Destroyer," which has garnered some attention in the blogosphere, Olsen balances her sorrow with anger, concluding, "If only this song could carry us on/But I know I'm only entertaining myself." Simple description might label Olsen's music folk, but that's like saying Pete Seeger had a passing interest in human rights. The truth lies much deeper.
As a postscript of sorts to this review, Olsen took some time from her native Chicago to play a few shows in New York in April, and hearing her in person is an experience more profound than any needle-to-vinyl can replicate. As she wound her graceful voice around these melodies in the tiny Zebulon Cafe in Brooklyn, surrounded by a packed house of friends and hipsters alike, one could almost envision her Chicago jazz forebears serenading smoky bars filled with the enrapt, or, to cite a more recent example, Jeff Buckley stunning the lucky few at Sin-é. Look out. If history is any guide, Angel Olsen is set for big things. (www.myspace.com/ghostgrocersings)
Author rating: 7/10
Average reader rating: 9/10