The descent into darkness is a trope we find time again across history, literature and film - a protagonist plunging further and further into the depths. But there is also an abyss above. There is a winding white staircase that goes ever upward into the great unknown - each step, each turn, requiring a greater boldness and confidence than the one before. This is the journey on which we find Angel Olsen.
Olsen’s flight is both upward and inward. Olsen's artistic beginnings as a collaborator shifted seamlessly to her magnificent, cryptic-to-cosmic solo work, and then she formed bands to play her songs, and her stages and audiences grew exponentially. But all along, Olsen was more concerned with a different kind of path, and on her vulnerable, Big Mood new album, All Mirrors, we can see her taking an introspective deep dive towards internal destinations and revelations. In the process of making this album, she found a new sound and voice, a blast of fury mixed with hard won self-acceptance.
"I guess you could say some bold and unexpected things have happened in my life" Olsen said. "It feels like part of my writing has come back from the past, and another part of it was waiting to exist."
All Mirrors gets its claws into you on both micro and macro levels. Of course, there’s that singular vibrato, always so very close - seemingly simple, cooed phrases expand into massive ideas about the inability to love and universal loneliness. And then suddenly - huge string arrangements and four horsemen bellowing synth swells emerge, propelling the apocalyptic tenor. Throughout All Mirrors, Angel fully lets in the goth tones that always lurked at the ends of her song craft.
"In every way - from the making of it, to the words, to how I feel moving forward - this record is about owning up to your darkest side," Olsen said. "Finding the capacity for new love and trusting change, even when you feel like a stranger. This is a record about facing yourself and learning to forgive what you see. It is about losing empathy, trust, love for destructive people. It is about walking away from the noise and realizing that you can have solitude and peace in your own thoughts, that your thoughts alone can be just as valid, if not more."
The first step of All Mirrors, was conceiving a back-to-basics solo record, which she recorded with producer Michael Harris in Anacortes, Washington. Soon after that was completed, a more ambitious version of the album began to percolate in her mind. This second, more maximalist version of All Mirrors evolved slowly with producer John Congleton, arranger Jherek Bischoff, Swiss Army Knife musician/arranger Ben Babbitt, and a 14 piece orchestra.
"I was determined to keep it bare bones in order to contrast with the not yet recorded full band record," Olsen said. "I wanted to have versions of these songs that are completely raw and real in the way some of my earlier recordings are, so that I could have the choice to play alone or with a band."
While remaking the album with full production and new collaborators, Olsen developed a new relationship with control. And in that process, she developed an even clearer vision of herself as artist.
"It’s scary to be your own compass, to trust new faces, to be a stranger - but sometimes that’s the only way forward," she said. "When you’ve been in a repetitive cycle so long it’s difficult for anyone to see you as someone who could come out of it. When you’ve made an example of yourself that people expect, some voices remind you of that example even when you know in your heart you’ve made changes."
"As I see it, in order for an artist to survive some kind of change, change needs to be a constant. For myself that constant change means having some kind of epiphany or clarity expressed in song. I don’t know if it’s something I inspire or attract, or if it’s just in the way I’m looking at my surroundings, but drama is something that surrounds my world and always has. I’m at least happy that I've learned to write it down."
Anyone reckless enough to have typecast Angel Olsen according to 2013's Burn Your Fire For No Witness is in for a rethink with her third album, MY WOMAN. The crunchier, blown-out production of the former is gone, but that fire is now burning wilder. Her disarming, timeless voice is even more front-and-center. Yet, the strange, raw power and slowly unspooling incantations of her previous efforts remain.
Over two previous albums, she gave us reverb-shrouded poetic swoons, shadowy folk, grunge-pop band workouts and haunting, finger-picked epics. MY WOMAN is an exhilarating complement to her past work, and one for which Olsen recalibrated her writing/recording approach and methods to enter a new music-making phase.
As the record evolves, one gets the sense that the "MY WOMAN" of the title is Olsen herself, absolutely in command but also willing to bend with the influence of collaborators and circumstances. An intuitively smart, warmly communicative and fearlessly generous record, MY WOMAN speaks to everyone. That it might confound expectation is just another of its strengths.
There is something unforgettable about great love songs, and Briana Marela's Call It Love wraps its welcoming arms around the subject, invoking all its complexity. Before writing the songs that would become Call It Love, Briana Marela was guided first and foremost by her instincts as a producer & engineer. Marela's original vision for this album was to dig into the two poles of her songwriting styles: her ambient, ethereal side and her brighter, beat-driven pop leanings. She enlisted the production help of Juan Pieczanski & Ryan Heyner of the band Small Black upon hearing their most recent self-produced album.
On this album, Briana Marela has made her proverbial giant leap, deepening her songwriting and expanding her palette to explore the sounds of love in beautiful, striking new ways. "Give Me Your Love" explores what Marela calls "love's immature, silly & selfish side." "Quit", the deep, dramatic centerpiece of Call It Love, was originally penned about a breakup with a longtime partner and written with the idea that she could give the song away to another artist. Instead, "Quit" is powerful and revealing in Briana's own hands. And, if "Be In Love" is the sound of falling in love, "Farthest Shore" is the sound of looking inward, of reckoning with and without ourselves. It is an intricate, cavernous song, setting a deceptively pretty melody over ominous drones and skittering percussion. And here, again, the contradictory becomes complementary.
Seeing Other People is curiously positioned as Foxygen's most recent last-ever album. With every album the band dies; with every album the band is reborn. But unlike the last-ever Foxygen albums before it, this one seems to have a self-effacing bittersweetness to it that signifies some sort of passing; some sort of white flag. But it SOUNDS in no way like a band giving up. It has experiments in tone and genre the likes of which we've not heard on a Foxygen record since….Starpower?; since 21st Century?; since Take the Kids??? You don't need our hot take on this thing.
Foxygen is the Big Bang of two combusting minds. It's the splayed Galaxy of polar geniuses Sam France and Jonathan Rado. It's a handshake with a knife behind your back. A sleepless night in a five star hotel.
You listen to Hang properly. You take in each moment. Each new melody that threads forward from the fingertips of one of this generation's finest piano men in Jonathan Rado. And you fall in line behind Sam France's sprawling and reckless lyric. Witness his mastery. Feel them struggle against the walls of their own creations. Follow them there. To the perimeter. To the exit sign.
Notice that the two young guys aren't there anymore. They're outside looking for another joint to haunt. They're already out of sight.
Jamila Woods has a voice and lyrical sensibility that transcends generations, and so it makes sense to have this lush and layered album that bounces seamlessly from one sonic aesthetic to another. This was the case on 2016's HEAVN, which found Woods hopeful and exploratory, looking along the edges resilience and exhaustion for some measures of joy. Her new album, Legacy! Legacy! is the logical conclusion to that looking. From the airy boom-bap of "Giovanni" to the psychedelic flourishes of "Sonia," the instrument which ties the musical threads together is the ability of Woods to find her pockets in the waves of instrumentation, stretching syllables and vowels over the harmony of noise until each puzzle piece has a home. The whimsical and malleable nature of sonic delights also grants a path for collaborators to flourish: the sparkling flows of Nitty Scott on "Sonia" and Saba on "Basquiat," or the bloom of Nico Segal's horns on "Baldwin." More than just giving the song titles the names of historical black and brown icons of literature, art, and music, Jamila Woods builds a sonic and lyrical monument to the various modes of how these icons tried to push beyond the margins a country had assigned to them. On "Sun Ra," Woods sings "I just gotta get away from this earth, man / this marble was doomed from the start" and that type of dreaming and vision honors not only the legacy of Sun Ra, but the idea that there is a better future, and in it, there will still be black people. Soul music did not just appear in America, and soul does not just mean music. Rather, soul is what gold can be dug from the depths of ruin, and refashioned by those who have true vision. True soul lives in the pages of a worn novel that no one talks about anymore, or a painting that sits in a gallery for a while but then in an attic forever. Soul is all the things a country tries to force itself into forgetting. Soul is all of those things come back to claim what is theirs. Jamila Woods is a singular soul singer who, in voice, holds the rhetorical demand. The knowing that there is no compromise for someone with vision this endless. That the revolution must take many forms, and it sometimes starts with songs like these. Songs that feel like the sun on your face and the wind pushing flowers against your back while you kick your head to the heavens and laugh at how foolish the world seems.
The expansive American experience Lonnie Holley quilts together across his astounding new album, MITH, is both multitudinous and finely detailed. Holley's self-taught piano improvisations and stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach have only gained purpose and power since he introduced the musical side of his art in 2012 with Just Before Music, followed by 2013's Keeping a Record of It. But whereas his previous material seemed to dwell in the Eternal-Internal, MITH lives very much in our world - the one of concrete and tears; of dirt and blood; of injustice and hope.
Across these songs, in an impressionistic poetry all his own, Holley touches on Black Lives Matter ("I'm a Suspect"), Standing Rock ("Copying the Rock") and contemporary American politics ("I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America"). A storyteller of the highest order, he commands a personal and universal mythology in his songs of which few songwriters are capable - names like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom and Gil Scott-Heron come to mind.
MITH was recorded over five years in locations such as Porto, Portugal; Cottage Grove, Oregon; New York City and Holley's adopted hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. These 10 songs feature contributions from fellow cosmic musician Laraaji, jazz duo Nelson Patton, visionary producer Richard Swift, saxophonist Sam Gendel and producer/musician Shahzad Ismaily.
Preoccupations' songs have always worked through themes of creation, destruction, and futility, and they've always done it with singular post-punk grit. The textures are evocative and razor-sharp. The wire is always a live one. But while that darker side may have been expertly explored, it's not quite the same as having been fully, intensely lived. This time it was, and the result is 'New Material', Preoccupations' deepest and most fully realized record to date. In it lies the difference between witnessing a car crash and crashing your own, between jumping into an ocean and starting to swallow the water.
In late 2013, Preoccupations - then known as Viet Cong - released a small-run cassette EP only available on tour. Over the course of a year, Matt Flegel and Scott Munro worked in their basement studio with a mess of old and run down equipment to build a set of fresh material. Joined by bandmates Daniel Christiansen and Michael Wallace, the band completed work on an debut cassette. What emerged from the studio was a mixture of sharply-angled rhythm workouts and euphoric '60s garage pop-esque melodies, balanced with a penchant for drone-y, VU-styled downer moments, and became a hard-to-find classic.
When the four members of Preoccupations wrote and recorded their new record, they were in a state of near total instability. Years-long relationships ended; they left homes behind. Frontman Matt Flegel, guitarist Danny Christiansen, multi-instrumentalist Scott Munro and drummer Mike Wallace all moved to different cities and they resolved to change their band name, but hadn't settled on a new one.
And so where their previous album 'Viet Cong' was built in some ways on the abstract cycles of creation and destruction, 'Preoccupations' explores how that sometimes-suffocating, sometimes-revelatory trap affects our lives.
Opener "Anxiety" articulates that tension: clattering sounds drift into focus, "Monotony" moves at a narcoleptic pace by Preoccupations' standards, "Degraded" surprises, with something like a traditional structure and an almost pop-leaning melody to its chorus, and the 11-minute-long "Memory" is the album's keystone, with an intimate narrative and a truly timeless post-punk center.
All this adds up to Preoccupations: a singular, bracing collection that proves what's punishing can also be soothing, everything can change without disrupting your compass. Your best year can be your worst year at the same time. Whatever sends you flying can also help you land.
Recorded in a barn-turned-studio in rural Ontario, the seven songs that make up Viet Cong were born largely on the road, when Flegel and bandmates Mike Wallace, Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen embarked on a 50-date tour that stretched virtually every limit imaginable. Close quarters hastened their exhaustion but also honed them as a group. You can designate records as seasonal, and you can feel Viet Cong's bleakness and declare it wintry. But the only way you get a frost is when there's something warmer to freeze up. So yes, Viet Cong is a winter album, but only until it is a spring record, then a summer scorcher, then an autumn burner, then it ices over again.
Where are we headed? What are we consuming, how is it affecting us, and why does everything feel so bad and weird sometimes? These are some of the questions posed on Ruban Nielson's fourth album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sex & Food. Recorded in a variety of locales from Seoul and Hanoi to Reykjavik, Mexico City, and Auckland, Sex & Food is a practical musical travelogue, with local musicians from the countries that Neilson and his band visited pitching in throughout.
Sex & Food is the most eclectic and expansive Unknown Mortal Orchestra release yet, from the light-footed R&B of "Hunnybee" to the stomping flange of "Major League Chemicals." "If You’re Going to Break Yourself" and "Not in Love We're Just High" chronicle the effects of drugs and addiction on personal relationships, while the lyrics "Ministry of Alienation" drip with modern-day paranoia like the silvery guitar tones that jewel the song's structure.
The modern world, and all the thorny complications that come with living in it, loomed large on Ruban's mind while making Sex & Food. Though he's not afraid to get topical throughout, as evidenced on the surprisingly boisterous "American Guilt" or the roomy-disco medication-meditation "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays".
A statement of selflessness, to be sure-but make no mistake: Sex & Food reaffirms the vitality of Ruban's voice in today’s musical landscape.
II builds on the break-beat, junk-shop charm the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Ruban Nielson came to be renowned for following Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled 2011 debut, and signals the solidification of the band's position as an endlessly intriguing, brave psychedelic band. UMO is unafraid to dig deeper than the rest to lock into their intoxicating, opiate groove and bring rock’n’roll’s exaggerated myths to life. Written during a punishing, debauched touring schedule during which Nielson feared for both his sanity and health, II illustrates the emotional turmoil of life on the road, painting surrealist, cartoonish portraits of loneliness, love and despair.
The threads of our past never unravel, they hover like invisible webs, occasionally glistening due to a sly angle of the sun. On Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ruban Nielson reflects on relationships: airy, humid longing, loss, the geometry of desire that occurs when three people align. Where Nielson addressed the pain of being alone on II, Multi-Love takes on the complications of being together.
Multi-Love adds dimensions to the band's already kaleidoscopic approach, with Nielson exploring a newfound appreciation for synthesizers. The new songs channel the spirit of psych innovators without ignoring the last 40 years of music, forming a flowing, cohesive whole that reflects restless creativity. Cosmic escapes and disco rhythms speak to developing new vocabulary, while Nielson's vocals reach powerful new heights. "It felt good to be rebelling against the typical view of what an artist is today, a curator," he says. "It's more about being someone who makes things happen in concrete ways. Building old synthesizers and bringing them back to life, creating sounds that aren't quite like anyone else's. I think that’s much more subversive."
While legions of artists show fidelity to the roots of psychedelia, Unknown Mortal Orchestra shares the rare quality that makes the genre's touchstones so vital: constant exploration.