Angel Olsen wields the superpower of having one of the most dynamic voices in music. Not only that, but her songwriting puts it all to damn good use. Her latest release, the much-acclaimed My Woman, further pushes her sound into every direction. Sometimes it’s poppier, sometimes more mellow, louder and/or softer. Call it her slow takeover of the entire musical canon. Olsen and Co. came to Brooklyn’s the Warsaw on Sunday night, her second of two local weekend shows. Olsen’s backing band, sporting adorable matching gray suits with bolo ties, featured some welcome new additions. Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire may be one of the few voices out there with the chops to sing backing vocals for Olsen. Their Southern-inspired outfits seemed fitting for the barn-stomping, rockabilly-tinged set openers, “Never Be Mine” and “Hi-Five.” All three guitarists came out swinging as the slow-burning “Sister” worked toward its fiery crescendo.
At the opposite end of things, “Acrobat,” usually already a sparse song, was stripped bare even of its rhythm, making a brooding number sound all the more haunted. With its lurching momentum, the shape-shifting melody was left to wax and wane as Olsen saw fit, belting through lines like “I am alive” before lingering on “I thought I had died.” It remains one of her best songs, made all the better by her continual experimentation with its arrangement. She makes it all look easy to boot. “Windows” showcased vocals reminiscent of Stevie Nicks’ raspy warmth. The following song, “Not Gonna Kill You,” brought out the fever-pitch psychedelic sharpness that could be mistaken for Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. The encore kicked off with the bright and moody “Intern.” And for all the range displayed within the main set, the song still felt like a counterpoint, replacing drums and guitars for keyboards and synths. Just when you thought she was done conquering the musical landscape, there was still more stones left unturned. You can call this rock and roll. —Dan Rickershauser | @D4nRicks
Angel Olsen – Music Hall of Williamsburg – May 13, 2014
In the buildup to Muhammad Ali’s historic 1974 win against George Foreman, Ali declared that his strategy was to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” That phrase stuck in my head throughout Angel Olsen’s sold-out show at Music Hall of Williamsburg last night. Her singing voice has the uncanny ability to be at times flighty and beautiful and at other times shrill and piercing, never overdoing it with either style. The different tones often come out singing the same line, sometimes even phrasing the same word, which puts an added emphasis on her lyrics, even further embellished by her backing band—at times just playing light accompaniment then turning on a dime into some blues-heavy riffage.
“But all I want, all I ever need, is someone out there who believes,” Olsen sang gingerly on “Hi-Five.” Then her band jumped in with bass and snare as her voice got more biting to sing, “Sometimes believe, not always believe, sometimes believe.” The hairpin turns revealed an emotional honesty to her songwriting, opening a wide range of expression within her songs. This contrasts wonderfully with her adorably timid stage banter, shyly asking the audience questions like, “Do you guys have taco Tuesday here?” or “Have you guys ever been arrested before?” or my favorite, “Isn’t it weird … [laughs], never mind.” Olsen’s band left her on her own for the set’s final three songs: “Iota,”“White Fire” and “May As Well.” All three leaned heavily on the lighter side of her singing, as if she were almost crooning through a whisper. Backed by just light guitar playing, it was like the songs were so fragile and delicate they were hardly there at all, the gentle knockout punch of the night. —Dan Rickershauser
Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin (above, performing “Don’t Let the Kids Win” in studio for Triple J) has been compared to Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten, thanks to what AllMusic calls her “seamless meld of dreamy indie folk-pop and confessional alt-country.” Jacklin’s debut full-length, Don’t Let the Kids Win (stream it below), dropped last fall, pleasing critics and fans alike. Consequence of Sound said it “works like a musical punch to the gut, a tearjerker that makes even the most public of spaces ready sobbing spots. Each of the album’s 11 songs sounds effortlessly polished, her voice seasoned with the emotion of an entire lifetime.” The Guardian added: “Don’t Let the Kids Win feels very much like one of those albums that will slowly creep into the affections of a large number of people; it’s that lovely.” Having recently released two new singles, Julia Jacklin kicks off a quick North American tour on Monday at Rough Trade NYC. Atlanta folk singer-songwriter Faye Webster and Brooklyn singer-songwriter Aerial East open the show.
Hamilton Leithauser – Brooklyn Steel – November 1, 2017
Out of all of the musicians who had made a splash in the turn-of-the-century New York City rock scene you could argue that Hamilton Leithauser has aged more gracefully than the rest of the pack. Once the fiery-eyed frontman of the beloved indie-rock band the Walkmen, he’s made the transition toward more of a classic crooner as a solo artist. After the band went on hiatus in 2013, he released his elegant debut solo album, Black Hours, which owed as much to balladeers from the early ’60s as it did to the Walkmen’s post-punk and garage-rock roots. Things really began to gel on his most recent release, a collaborative album written with former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij called I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. Every song is a winner and mixes Hamilton’s influences with Rostam’s orchestration and production work effortlessly. Initially, Leithauser’s voice was one of the things that set apart the Walkmen from all of the other indie rock bands of their day. It was a force to reckon with at a packed Brooklyn Steel last night, with fans eager to hear him in all of his ragged power.
There’s a part in the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? when Monty Python’s Eric Idle compares the late singer’s vocal stylings to the routine of trapeze artists. Nilsson would reach for these death-defying notes and you never knew if he was going to pull them off or fail miserably. When watching Leithauser sing, you can’t help but see him in a similar way. Only with Leithauser, a daredevil jumping a motorcycle over row of burning cars is a more fitting metaphor. When he’s about to belt out some of those death-defying notes, a part of you thinks it might go horribly wrong but he always seems to stick the landing.
Leithauser proved this over and over again on Wednesday. He and his band ran through all of I Had a Dream That You Were Mine and also treated the crowd to a few songs from Black Hours. On the majority of the material, Leithauser would bang out chords on his 12-string acoustic or delicately pick on his nylon-string guitar for the somber ballads. But he really shined when putting them aside in order to play the role of frontman, thanks to his distinct stage presence. Squeezing the microphone like the leader of a hardcore band, head tilted facing the sky, with his other hand either flung back or punching emphatically into the air. Opener Courtney Marie Andrews came out to duet on two songs, I Had a Dream’s beautiful fever dream of a closer, “1959,” and the newly released duet with Angel Olsen, “Heartstruck (Wild Hunger).” Their voices harmonized beautifully, and it was absolutely breathtaking when she took the lead on the latter number.
Leithauser was thankful to be back in Brooklyn and was conversational with the adoring hometown crowd. He treated the room to the piano ballad “Proud Irene,” off of a limited vinyl-only release, Dear God, which Leithauser would personally hand-deliver to people in the neighborhood. As he introduced the song and explained the release, you could tell there were a few people in the front row who had purchased it. For the encore, the band played through his first-ever collaboration with Rostam, “I Retired,” off of Black Hours, which Leithauser claimed was the best recording he’s ever been a part of. The performance ended with I Had a Dream’s “Peaceful Morning” and then a solo cover of Palace Music’s “Trudy Dies.” He then left the cheering crowd with a wave, joyfully exclaiming, “I’m Hamilton Leithauser. I live down the street.” —Pat King | @MrPatKing
Plenty of musicians change their sound from album to album. Was that a clear intention in moving from the folkier Wildewoman to the poppier Good Grief? Or was that just how your sound evolved? It’s funny. People comment on how different the two are. But Wildewoman was recorded over a few years, and we were in no rush at the beginning because we didn’t have anything to be rushing for—we were just starting out. And we took our time and made it right. We came out with Wildewoman and we had kind of put the band together throughout and after making that record. So when we toured on it, things started to change, and the sound started to change. And the show got a lot more energetic, and the audience was reacting a lot more to the show than the record. People commented a lot how the live show and the record sounded so different, and that the live shows were so much more energetic. I think by the time we got to the end of that cycle, it was where Good Grief was picking up naturally, but from just listening from a record standpoint, there does seem to be a bigger difference than it felt like.
How was recording Good Grief different than recording Wildewoman? We took a different approach to it. We got off the road—we had been touring for, like, a year-and-a-half straight. And we were exhausted, and we decided to go to L.A. to kind of decompress and start writing. So Jess and I took a few months to write, just the two of us. And we would send the guys rough demos and then they would do their own versions of the same song—and kind of build arrangements around them. So when we went into the studio, we had at least two versions of everything. And we worked with Shawn Everett—he did the Alabama Shakes record with Blake Mills—he’s like this crazy alien angel person [laughing]. He’s one of our really closest friends, and he’s always got these wild ideas. So we were really excited to get into the studio with him. He had an idea to make communication easier with five very strong personalities in the studio. To kind of smooth things over and to get everyone’s voice heard, he thought it would be helpful to come up with a bunch of reference tracks: “For each track that we’re gonna work on, think of a song that you think could influence this.” So it could be “I like the sound of the tone on this Rolling Stones track.” Or “I like the way these vocals were recorded on this West African tune.” And we would all pick one or two songs and put ’em in a box, and he would pick them out one by one—it was all anonymous. And we would listen to everything, like 10 to 15 songs, and write down on a dry erase board everything we like about each one. It could be very specific, as far as a recording technique, or it could be more vague, like a feeling. And once we had this dry erase board of notes, we would then start working on the song. So it was a really interesting way of going about it, and I think we got a lot of good stuff we would’ve normally not even considered.
How did your appearance on Roadies come about? And any chance you’ll be adding “Willin’” to your set list? I mean, I don’t think we could top singing that with Jackson Browne, so probably not. Fair. Rafe Spall, who is one of the actors on Roadies—so the story goes: Rafe’s friend Rafe, which is hilarious to me. The first Rafe I ever met, and I met two of them in one day. His friend recommended our music to him, and he was playing it one day on set. And Cameron was like, “Who’s this?” And Rafe said, “This band Lucius.” And he said, “Well, let’s get ’em in here. See if they want to do an episode.” So we met him, and he’s the nicest guy ever. And we said, “Yeah, absolutely, we’d love to do this.” It was a really cool experience. It was really inspiring to see Cameron Crowe as a director and a leader. Everybody who was there, from the actors to the makeup people to the crew people to catering—everybody—was like, “Yeah, we work really hard, sometimes we work late hours, but we’re happy to do it because Cameron’s the man.” And he really was. We had some lines, and I was incredibly nervous about it because it’s not what we do normally. So there was this one line, and I was like, “This isn’t how I’d normally phrase this.” And I was trying to get my head inside it so I could say it the right way. And I asked him, and he said, “Let’s go over it.” And he dropped everything and took me aside, and he would’ve gone over this, like, one line with me for as long as I wanted—very, very patient. It was great, and we got to sing with Jackson Browne, and Jim James was on the set. It was cool.
For some bands, live shows are like a theater piece in that the set doesn’t change much, but the performers are aware of the subtle nuances each night. And for others, every night’s show is different than the one before. Where do you land on that spectrum? Like as far as each night being different? Yeah, I mean, a band like U2, they play pretty much the same set most nights, but it’s not the same show obviously. But someone like Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam, they change their set every night. I guess for each leg of a tour, we tend to stick generally to the same set. Some songs we change a little bit, but it’s nice once you get into a groove to stick with it, the transitions go more easily. But every show’s different regardless, especially because of the audience—not to put it all on the audience—but the vibe and the venue and the city, everything can really make a break a show for the performer. If your audience is really giving back to you, and you’re bouncing off of that, sometimes we have funny banter or things can change, or we’ll decide let’s do this song instead because they’re liking the up-tempo ones. So occasionally, it’s just, like, fly by the seat of your pants. But it’s definitely nice to get into a groove.
What new music have you been listening to? We’ve been listening to the new Angel Olsen record a lot. It only came out a couple weeks ago, I think. We’re excited to be playing with Big Thief in Central Park. And I’m stoked to see them ’cause I love that record. I love Alabama Shakes. We went to see that show at the Greek, and it was so good. That’s a good one to groove to, for sure. Was that with Kurt Vile? Yeah, and I love that record too. And Kurt Vile’s on the bill for One Big Holiday in February. Oh, yeah. That’s gonna be so fun! —R. Zizmor | @Hand_Dog
Rodrigo Amarante – Rough Trade NYC – July 25, 2015
Some languages beautifully translate into song, and Portuguese is definitely one of them—from the bossa nova sway to the melancholic fado. Of course, most folks are familiar with the João Gilberto classic, “The Girl from Ipanema,” and even contemporary artists like Devendra Banhart have sung folk songs in this romance language. On Brazilian Rodrigo Amarante’s first solo album, Cavalo, Banhart took second fiddle providing guest vocals. But it’s easy to see why a bigger name in the American-music vernacular would take the supporting role. Amarante has had an eclectic career, first leading Los Hermanos in his homeland before forming the indie three-piece Little Joy with the Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro, in addition to his acclaimed solo work. The trio was my first introduction to Amarante, leaving me a fan ever since, so when he rolled into Brooklyn’s Rough Trade NYC on Saturday night, I was there no questions asked.
“You came!” exclaimed Amarante, his arms raised in triumph, as he took the stage. It was the final performance on his tour in which he would play his solo album in its entirety. The largely Brazilian crowd sang along from the beginning, with the calming nah nah nahs in “Nada Em Vão.” When he moved on to the French song “Mon Nom,” Amarante thanked the audience with a “merci” upon its completion. For this non- Portuguese speaker, the evening felt like being transported to a small club in São Paulo. The humming intro of “Tardei” quickly coaxed a choral repetition like waves crashing against a beach. A gaggle of gals behind me harmonized to the fado-esque “Irene,” and then Amarante broke the take-us-on-a-trip spell by covering Angel Olsen’s “Unfucktheworld,” about which he confessed his great admiration for her song-writing talents.
The amiable artist offered a story about his numerous interactions with U.S. customs while tuning his white guitar. After several conversations about the reason for his travels to America as a musician, Amarante has concluded the password for the States is jazz. It’s the perfect fast pass through the border after a 10-plus hour flight. The set continued with more from his debut album, including the percussion-heavy “Maná” and the plaintive “The Ribbon.” And the encore had fans samba-ing to a Los Hermanos favorite, which incited a stream of claps, before Amarante sent fans, this one especially, happily home to bed with the Little Joy lullaby “Evaporar.”—Sharlene Chiu