Angel Olsen wails, sobs, coos, screams in tune, and sometimes almost yodels at warm, powerful First Ave show

Angel Olsen at First Ave

Angel Olsen at First Ave Tony Nelson

Angel Olsen's voice sometimes sounds like a cold wind determined to strip the skin off your face—but in a good way. (Scour the flesh from our bones, Angel!)

Yet Olsen's affable stage presence and easy camaraderie with her band warmed up a First Avenue show that could have easily felt dour, given the dark, artier quality of the material from her imposingly huge new breakup album, All Mirrors.

The set opened with All Mirrors' slinky "New Love Cassette," which was distinctly brawnier in the hands of a live band, reaching a subtle climax with syncopated variations on the main groove toward the song's end. It was clearly an opening tease, easing us into the world of the new album, which we would occupy for her first half-dozen songs. When they finished it, Olsen deadpanned, "We're just gonna do a couple more."

For four albums, Olsen has made use of the singer-songwriter's familiar folk-rock palette but seldom wrote as herself. With All Mirrors, suddenly the balance has reversed—she's working with her most fantastical arrangements, just as her lyrics feel more personal than ever.

Olsen and band performed in front of a gothic balcony bathed in lights of various colors. Two sets of shining chains hung over them from the ceiling in concentric U shapes, refracting the stage lights.

Used to be Angel Olsen songs achieved liftoff either on their impeccable, structured craft or on their evocative turns of phrase. "The Waiting," from Olsen's 2012 album Half Way Home, has both. It's a simple folk-rock song buoyed by its detailed, gently rocking band arrangement: The staggered entrances of harmonies both from the band and from overdubbed Olsens, a perfect plunk-plunk bass tone, a sweet little dual guitar lead, an extra acoustic guitar showing up hard right in the stereo field. Over top, Olsen strings gentle shit-talk to an inadequate lover, finally pleading "sometimes, I need you to be the one to call"—her humblest request delivered with her greatest intensity.

I wouldn't change a note of "The Waiting." It's a perfect song in the way it feels instantly familiar yet un-cliché, retro yet out of time. Olsen's pre-All Mirrors discography is littered with songs like this. In fact, her albums have always felt like collections of discrete songs rather than bodies of closely related works.

All Mirrors unsubtly changes this, going all in on a sound and exploring it for an hour. Recorded with major indie-rock knob twiddler John Congleton and a dozen-piece string section, the result is something like Bjork's Homogenic filtered through '80s goth rock, with Olsen's unmistakable vocal melodies tying it to her past work. It's simply big in a way no other Angel Olsen album has been before, and I was excited to see how she would (or wouldn’t) recreate it live.

A violinist and cellist covered the role of the larger string section from the album, plus bass, drums, guitar, synth, and Olsen on rhythm guitar or a second synth. (The main keyboard duties, and backing vocals, were handled by local musician Nona Marie Invie of IN/VIA, Dark Dark Dark, and many other projects.)

Integration of the strings into the old material, and likewise the road band's takes on All Mirrors happened naturally. Nothing old was drastically rearranged, and the two string players often filled the room, sounding like many more. The strings lent "Acrobat," in particular, some serious eerie haunted house vibes, and the band achieved borderline doom metal during the second half of "Impasse."

Some slashing, trebly guitar chords in "Lark" closed the gap between the All Mirrors material and the sound of My Woman, an album that was represented only by "Shut Up Kiss Me." The single-lead guitar lineup may have made it difficult to play some of its songs, since it was so defined by dueling lead guitars—Olsen, strictly a rhythm player, joked that she was learning to play lead on tour after supplying a three-note figure at the end of "Shut Up."

To Olsen's credit, she didn't go overboard in an attempt to turn her set into an immersive, unified experience. The band wore black, suiting the new material's dark patina, and sustained a mood for the first few songs, but they loosened up occasionally too. Olsen maintained the goofy stage presence she displayed when I saw her touring behind My Woman at a festival a couple years ago, a time when her aesthetic was more openly indebted to a sense of countrypolitan camp. She told the audience to give her merch table person a hard time, asked if anyone had a birthday that night, and, for reasons unclear to me, shouted "mamma mia!" after one song, which led to a bit of back-and-forth Italian yelling between her and audience members.

Midway through, after the full-band noise squall ending of "Special," Olsen's bass-player's amp malfunctioned for a couple minutes. When it was working again, she tested it out by playing a little of Blind Melon's "No Rain." Soon the rest of the band joined, and the Mainroom started a singalong. Any darkly immersive spell they tried to cast over the show would have been broken at this point.

The most striking thing about the set, and probably the thing that helped it all hang together, was Olsen's voice, not just its sound but its physical presence. Or maybe more accurately Olsen's voices: She wails and sobs and sometimes almost yodels, she coos like Emmylou Harris on cough syrup, and occasionally, she sings clear and plain, like a girl group member with no one by her side.

I have an uncle who likes Screamin' Jay Hawkins because, he says, Hawkins "screams in tune," and those big Angel Olsen notes—those strange, voice cracking wails it seems like only she can do—remind me a little of Hawkins, whose thing was applying operatic training to a very eccentric vocal style. In the Mainroom, which is not huge, the eccentricity falls away, replaced by awe at Olsen's command of her voice, at hearing the swooping volume changes, the subtle timbral adjustments she makes in person, the way she moves between registers with comfortable precision, and the way she hits those notes, maybe pulling just a couple inches back from the mic—she doesn't want to kill us, after all.

New Love Cassette
All Mirrors
No Rain (impromptu Blind Melon singalong)
Sweet Dreams
Shut Up Kiss Me

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