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Feb 17, 2014

Angel Olsen

angel_olsen_album_cover.jpgBurn Your Fire For No Witness

Fierce and light and young, hit the ground and run.

I realized this week that I was stuck in a Sun Kil Moon binge, having spun their morbid new record no fewer than twenty-five times over. If you’ve heard about the lyrical content on “Benji” you can understand why that might put one in a peculiar state of mind. A friend recommended that I gradually decompress with the forthcoming release from a singer-songwriter on Jagjaguwar who I’d never heard of before, Angel Olsen.

Olsen is a 26-year old folk artist, based in Chicago by way of St. Louis.  She learned to sing by yodeling in her bedroom and wrote her first songs on the back of coffee shop receipts. Part of Emmet Kelley’s Cairo Gang, a back-up vocalist for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and a tour mate of Neko Case, Olsen has spent the last three years building her vintage sound from the low-fi EP, “Strange Cacti” and her proper debut “Half Way Home.” Produced by John Congleton, producer for the likes of St. Vincent, Joanna Newsom, and Modest Mouse, Olsen has brought to the table a far more sonically colorful LP, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness.” Now backed by a drummer, fellow barista Josh Jaeger, and a bassist, Stewart Bronaugh, the piano, organ, synths round out her previous album’s strengths with thicker, more confident sound. Recorded away from the grey skies of Chicago in the comparatively spacious Ashville, North Carolina, this is a record that wanders without losing the creative energy of “Half Way Home.”

The tracks range from her previous, more subdued material, like the Joni Mitchell-esque yodels of “Iota” and “Enemy” to pulsating alt-country jams, “Forgiven/Forgotten” or “Hi-Five” that bring to mind Patti Smith or PJ Harvey. The difference between “Burn Your Fire” and her previous releases is perhaps most obviously heard on the expansive “Stars” or in the vocal lift-off at the end of the album closer, “Windows.”

“White Fire,” a modern dead-ringer for early Leonard Cohen, serves as the emotional anchor of the album and is the source of the title, “If you've still got some light in you then go before it's gone/Burn your fire for no witness it's the only way it's done/Fierce and light and young/Fierce and light and young/Hit the ground and run/Hit the ground and run.” There is angst and sorrow all over the lyrics, but humor as well. On single “Hi-Five”, she answers her own question, “are you lonely too?” with “hi-five! so am I.”


Olsen’s latest makes for an absorbing, rewarding listen that strikes a balance between modern folk-rock sensibility and introverted quirk, boasting remarkably heartfelt vocals and deft instrumentation. If you’re looking for equal parts smart and soulful, you’ll find it in the new Angel Olsen— a live act that I certainly don’t intend to miss. 

Kevin Karner