Angel Olsen Angel OlsenHalf Way Home
Besides flirty Swedes, R&B reformists and the big out-pop crop led, as Juan Manuel Freire predicted, by the winning trio of Grimes, Julia Holter and Laurel Halo, this year we’ve run into a bunch of women who approach the mysterious canon of song in more or less orthodox ways. Natasha Khan has definitely established herself as the singer to take over from Iceland’s Björk. Sinead O’Connor has surprised everyone by baring herself boldly in a new album. Plenty has been said about the synth turn that Cat Power has taken with her grower of an album, “Sun”, the carnality of Sharon Van Etten’s “Tramp” and the expressionism of Fiona Apple’s masterpiece. In Spain there has also been good news, served up by Silvia Pérez Cruz and her indispensable “11 de Novembre”. Nevertheless, as the end of the year sidles into view, one got the feeling that 2012 was still missing a great conservative folk album with a country bent to round out our First Aid Kit.
I believe that “Half Way Home” is that album. It’s an amazingly natural work, free of effects, which slips quietly into your bedroom, almost without raising its voice, similar to the way that Mountain Man’s “Made The Harbor” did. It comes from Angel Olsen, a Missouri beauty who grew up in Chicago, who has recorded before. She has a history, specifically two cassettes dating from 2010: “Lady Of The Waterpark”, with covers of women like Skeeter Davis and Dolly Parton, and “Strange Cacti”, recorded in her kitchen and later released on vinyl by the label Bathetic, although it’s now out of print.
Angel, who could also be seen forming a part of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Cairo Gang, admits that she is still learning to develop her obvious musical talents. Working with Oldham’s group, she says, has helped her to learn to communicate better with musicians, which is essential for an artist like her, overwhelming at short distances like those used here, but who can really raise up her songs even a bit more when she is accompanied by a band that backs her with its substance. The sensational “The Waiting”, the most pop piece on the album, would be a good example of how well a bit more rhythmic stamp suits her sound. “I take a breath and remind myself that I too can be strong”, she sings, as the ghost of no less than Elvis Presley comes and goes onstage.
The splendour of her voice will move you from the very first moment. Determined and virginal at the same time, her measured voice commands a sober sound tapestry rocked by delicate acoustic guitars and caressed by a double bass. The lyrics are outstanding, dealing with the main idea of “a home that is inside yourself”, exploring subjects like maternity (in “Lonely Universe” she recalls separation from her biological mother comparing her to Mother Earth), the dangers of the truth (lurking in “The Sky Opened Up”) or the consequences of desire ( “Acrobat”, perhaps the most stirring space folk heard since “Bon Iver”). Its gentle, unforced drama soaks deeply into your skin, but Olsen also knows when it’s time to cut loose, like in the lighter “Free”. And the stories throb close to home, like “You Are Song” ( “I’m always song, can you hear me?”) or “Tiniest Seed” where the moral of the story is that “the tiniest seed is both simple and wild”. The album closes with that cut, and one can’t help but interpret the verse as a pure description of what lies ahead of her: Angel has sown the seeds of something that is destined to sprout deep roots.