September 2016

Arts & Letters

Someone, anyone

By Anwen Crawford
Angel Olsen’s ‘My Woman’ and Sarah Mary Chadwick’s ‘Roses Always Die’

“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done,” sings Angel Olsen on the opening track to her third full-length release, My Woman, “still gotta wake up and be someone.” The song is called ‘Intern’, and in it the self is a kind of business, while romance may be a bad investment. “Pick up the phone but I swear it’s the last time.” An accompanying video clip shows Olsen wearing a sparkly wig and a headset, like an employee at a fantastical call centre. “Falling in love and I swear it’s the last time.”

Her voice moves from emphatic low notes to dramatic, breathy highs, and she is accompanied by silvery synthesisers. The vocal melody is faintly reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 hit ‘Hungry Heart’, and Olsen has covered Springsteen’s ‘Tougher than the Rest’ for a bonus 7-inch single to accompany this new album. That hint of widescreen pop is an indication of Olsen’s expanded ambitions; of her albums so far, My Woman is the one that sounds most open to a large audience. With that openness comes an increased risk of judgement, and of failure. “Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do,” she warns, “something in the world will make a fool of you.”

Olsen, 29, was raised in Missouri and is now based in North Carolina. Her background is somewhat unorthodox: she is one of many children to adoptive parents, who were closer in age to grandparents when they began caring for Olsen as a baby. This formative age gap may have played a part in the sometimes anachronistic sound of Olsen’s music; she told Spin magazine in 2014 that among her early loves were the Everly Brothers and Skeeter Davis. Davis, like the Everly Brothers, was an early country-rock crossover artist, beginning her solo recording career in the 1950s. Country music remains a part of Olsen’s own sound, as do folk and a strand of spare, simple guitar rock reminiscent of songwriters like Liz Phair, whose 1993 album Exile in Guyville is esteemed as a benchmark of that era.

During her early 20s, Olsen toured with the cult indie singer-songwriter Will Oldham as a backing singer and as a member of his less-than-serious side project, The Babblers. (Band members wore pyjamas onstage.) Olsen released a limited edition cassette, Strange Cacti, in 2010, and her debut proper, Half  Way Home, followed in 2012.

It was with her second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014), that Olsen really began to gain notice outside the United States. The album’s title came from an extraordinary seven-minute song called ‘White Fire’; its finger-picked guitar and sombre mood owed a clear debt to Leonard Cohen, but Olsen made it work on her own terms. “Fierce and light and young,” she sang, though the song sounded haunted and ancient. “Hit the ground and run.”

Olsen is blessed with a velvety voice, and the sparser her songs’ arrangements, the more her voice shines. In this respect My Woman suffers a little from being a more conventional rock record than her previous work. There are up to three guitarists on some tracks, and the simpler songs don’t always benefit from a fuller sound. Musically, My Woman is split into two “halves”, in the way of an LP, and it was also recorded to analogue tape, adding to its old-fashioned appeal. The expansive songs on the second half reward repeat listening more than do the shorter, punchier opening tracks, though it’s these that have been chosen to promote the record.

On some tracks, such as ‘Sister’, you can hear the tape hiss. This is the album’s strongest song, and, at nearly eight minutes, another lengthy highlight from Olsen, whose sense of drama suits the slow build. The mid-tempo ballad begins with nothing but some strummed guitar chords, before gradually adding other textures. During the song’s first half the drums are confined mostly to hi-hat and cymbals, which leaves space in the arrangement that Olsen’s voice can occupy; her vocal winds its way around some sympathetic country-rock guitar playing, including a solo – who does those anymore? – in the song’s final section. “All of my life I thought had changed,” sings Olsen, though her repetition of the line suggests that less has altered than she may have been hoping for.

My Woman could have been recorded at any point over the past 50 years without sounding out of its time. On ‘Woman’, which comes after ‘Sister’ and is nearly as long again, there are string sounds generated by a Mellotron, the early tape-based keyboard favoured by ’60s rock groups like The Moody Blues. Olsen sings of having “no promise of the future”, and though her musical sensibilities are not exactly forward-looking, they are solidly realised. The lyric belies the record’s essential optimism: Olsen’s voice swoops around the Mellotron with a momentum that suggests there is more to come.

Also favouring old keyboard equipment – but to decidedly stranger effect – is Sarah Mary Chadwick, whose new album, Roses Always Die, is her third solo recording. Whereas Olsen dedicates the first track on her record to a ballad of self-improvement, Chadwick’s opening song, ‘Makin’ It Work’, suggests rather the opposite: a soul barely coping, and prepared to say so. “I’m talking now to anyone,” she sings. Her voice, which is bold in volume but fragile in tone, has a slight echo on it. She accompanies herself only with a Yamaha organ, and a basic drum beat programmed on the same machine.

‘Makin’ It Work’ is desolate, as much of Chadwick’s music is, but at the edge of that desolation – or maybe at its very core – is a stubborn hope. Chadwick has a gift for melody that other writers might envy: one can imagine her songs arranged on a scale much larger than what she’s currently working at, though it is in fact their hesitant, sketchy quality that grants them an uncommon emotional power. “But baby, oh baby, / Spin me round and save me / Oh, save me,” she sings, and it’s a captivating pop moment, done in miniature.

Chadwick is based in Melbourne, though she is originally from New Zealand. Her band Batrider, of which she was the sole constant member, formed in Wellington during the early 2000s and eventually relocated to Adelaide, with four album releases and a handful of EPs along the way. Chadwick’s first solo album, which bore the evocative title Eating  for Two, was released in 2012, and was a record of mostly guitar-based songs. In 2014 came a collection of miscellaneous demos, Hit and Miss, while on 9 Classic Tracks (2015), and again on her new album, she has switched to playing organ and synthesiser almost exclusively.

These instruments suit Chadwick’s songwriting: her simple, sustained keyboard chords clarify the relationship between her vocal melodies and the songs’ harmonic structures. The songs can sound almost instantly familiar – behind them lie the ghost of something like Carly Simon’s ‘Coming Around Again’, a hit record about heartbreak – but their candour is unusual.

Chadwick’s lyrics are often confrontational in their starkness. “I’ve got no dignity saved / I lost it / On my knees in an alley,” she sings on ‘Yunno What’, the album’s second track, again with just a handful of organ notes to support her voice. Yet one doesn’t get the sense that her songs are strictly from life; they seem to take place in the aftermath of extreme emotional states, and are dreamlike in both their lyrical images and musical repetitions.

Similarly, the cover art for her last two albums, which Chadwick has drawn herself, are erotic drawings that slide into surreal exaggeration. Roses Always Die features a kind of self-portrait of the songwriter in lingerie, with her limbs at unlikely angles. You may think that you’re getting raw self-exposure, but Chadwick’s work is carefully arranged.

“I’m not scared anymore / I just don’t care / Now God’s not near,” she sings on ‘Cool It’, which comes halfway through Roses Always Die. The lyrics might be addressed to a lover, but the “you” in Chadwick’s lyrics is often ambiguous. Other characters – lovers, friends, family, God – pass by, but the yearning for connection remains constant.

On 9 Classic Tracks there is a marvellous song called ‘Ask Walt’ that joins this search for intimacy to the figure of Walt Whitman, the great celebrator of human connectedness. After working through a catalogue of contradictions (“Too happy for the sad ones / Too long-faced for the glad ones”), the song arrives at a Whitmanesque image of human similarity: “I’m one blade of grass / The other blades look just like me.” The realisation seems to offer no comfort, though: “It’s such a dirty trick.”

Roses Always Die continues in the same musical and emotional vein as 9 Classic Tracks, though it is even more unadorned. The earlier record often featured Chadwick’s voice in harmonising layers, but here her voice is almost always alone, save for that echo, like the trace of a former self. “And what is / Gonna grow out of the mud of this?” she asks on the closing track, ‘Turn On’. The question goes unanswered, but the act of asking it suggests that the answer is still worth searching for.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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