By B. Simm
Following her 2016 breakout album, My Woman, this collection of B-sides, demos and cover tracks from Angel Olsen was highly anticipated by loyal fans and curious new ones about the charismatic singer-songwriter’s inner workings. When records like these are released on their own, rather than being packaged as part of a deluxe set or bonus tracks that accompany a reissue, usually there’s the expectation that the material is of the splendid caliber that’s been sitting in the vaults, waiting for a little studio spit and polish, then tied up in a big beautiful bow and given to the record company to deliver as rare gems.
Yes, and no. Mostly no – repacking Olsen with some fairy dust isn’t in the cards here. She’s not that kind of woman. Phases certainly has a few polished gems, no doubt about that. But the vast majority of tracks are stripped down, often lo-fi, late-night, lazy afternoon throw together, let’s get-it-on-tape sessions and kitchen recordings that contain all the typical imperfections – amplifier hum, glitchy noises from recording devices turning on and off, cracking voices, and chairs that creak. But none of that means there’s not some fantastic stuff.
Reverb and gritty, hip-sway guitars propel the ‘60s West Coast, garage-infested “Sweet Dreams” so authentically you’d think Olsen set out specifically to record a revival hit. And as her voice oscillates between the urgency of a young Grace Slick and then the heart-melting, high-flying “Wicked Game” falsetto of Chris Isaak, you know that that’s exactly what it is — Olsen reclaiming the past her own, and doing it immaculately.
In the quiet acoustic strum of “How Many Disasters” when Olsen sings, “All the moments I spent chasing a meaning/How unfair to have a heart that’s still beating/When I can’t just love a moment that’s fleeting” she perfectly captures Liz Phair in her early years longing for the world to stand still, shut up and let her have her deserts.
In another pair of acoustic tunes Olsen sinks into characters that occupy other rich American soundscapes. “May As Well”, a demo version from Burn Your Fire For No Witness, is drenched deep in the blue hills country-folk of Virginia with Patsy Cline’s spirit floating in and out. “Endless Road”, a song Olsen borrowed from the ‘60s TV show Bonanza, echoes the high-plains drifter crooning around the campfire.
Her version of Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest”, however, are very non-Bruce like. Sung in a high pitch with simple electric chords, Olsen’s femininity aches and drips with sincerity and not a trace of bravado. Whereas “California”, a bouncy knock-off, perhaps the most ungrounded track on Phases, takes a walk on the wild side while Olsen moves from one distinct persona to another, as if different voices in Jonathan Richman’s head were jockeying for the lead role. Weird and unusual, but a completely delightful departure.
Phases is full of Olsen showing different sides and different influences. Most definitely a profound collection of diamonds in the rough. The woman has a big heart, she’s funny, she’s subtle and terribly inviting.Angel Olsen, Phases, Record Review