*** (out of four stars)
When an artist has an extraordinary voice, it can be difficult to sort great songs from OK songs sung beautifully. In the past few years I’ve continually returned to “Grown Unknown” by Lia Ices. Not only is her voice astonishing, but the complicated lyrics and thoughtful textures make the record soothing without becoming background music. It’s a gorgeous, rewarding album that’s more than just an awesome voice.
That leads us to “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” the breakout record (and first for indie heavyweight label Jagjaguwar) from former Logan Square resident Angel Olsen, who’s now based in North Carolina. Is this an album of fantastic songs? I don’t think so. There’s a sense of Olsen having two settings—quietly haunting vs. toe-tapping indie rocker—and a jagged uneasiness in listening. Perhaps that’s intentional; many lyrics chronicle discomfort from different perspectives. “If only we grew wiser with each breath,” she sings on the mellow, almost Brazilian “Iota,” “If only we could dance our way to death.” Earlier, on the warbling country shuffle of “Hi-Five,” she adds humor by asking, “Are you lonely too? Hi-five! So am I.”
Despite Olsen’s intoxicating, Edith Piaf-esque voice, the forgettable music too often feels like it’s trying to get out of the singer’s way, though her words are sometimes powerful, sometimes average. That yields delicate, breathtaking results on “Enemy,” while “Dance Slow Decades” blossoms to devastate. Still, I can’t shake the sense that the album would be just as interesting with Olsen singing a cappella, which is a complaint about the material and a compliment to the performer. To cozy up to a fireplace and ride her vocal roller coaster is to connect with Olsen’s Fiona Apple-ish confession on the otherwise plain “Stars”: “I feel so much at once that I could scream.”
In concert: May 4 at Lincoln Hall
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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