Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness – review

Last December, Angel Olsen opened for Neko Case at the Forum, one of London's draughtier old theatres. For half an hour, it was Olsen, her stark electric guitar and her basilisk stare versus a demi-interested crowd, still trickling in from work. Some there might have heard of Olsen's first album, 2012's Half Way Home, a collection of acoustic songs that veered more towards the 1940s than they did the wispiness of folk.

First spotted doing backing vocals for Bonnie "Prince" Billy four years ago, this obscure Chicago bit player has now gone almost fully electric. Leaping a few tiers in status, Olsen has ended up somewhere west of Sharon Van Etten or north of Cat Power, in the neighbourhood of the Breeders by way of Leonard Cohen. Her second album is one of those records that hypnotises as it unfurls.

That night, she sang with controlled intensity, coaxing echoey prangs out of her instrument. Olsen didn't actually bring the activity at the bar to a halt, as she did at one gig in New York. But those increasingly caught up in her spell latched intently on to the frequencies in Olsen's guitar and voice – not the silkiest instrument, not the most athletic voice, but a pairing that reverberated with a kind of otherworldly intensity, like on an old 78rpm. Olsen now walks a tightrope between pressed flowers and sepia tints and taut, city swagger. On her album, Enemy is one of those songs whose word choice is resolutely contemporary, but whose warble-and-strum sound like something your grandmother might have recognised. "I need advice it's true," Olsen coos, "but I won't hear it from you."

Leonard Cohen is always a big name to drop and too often it's bathos that he invokes, rather than a lofty level of craft. You suspect that Olsen might have written one song, White Fire, with her tongue drilling a hole in her cheek, so closely does it track the 60s Cohen. "Everything is tragic/It all just falls apart," it begins, in funereal minor key. But the more Olsen goes on, the less it sounds like copycat lugubriousness and the more it sounds like romantic heartbreak, piled on to what you might crassly call abandonment issues. "I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt." It's worth knowing that Olsen was adopted at the age of three.

Step outside the coffee house and the single, Forgiven/Forgotten is a grunge-pop party tune conducted in an entirely different timbre and an entirely different tempo: textbook, toothsome indie rock. Its nearest relative is probably something such as Van Etten's Serpents, another song in which guitars seethe and rub against an unorthodox vocal melody and a relationship explodes in the background. Iota, by contrast, is a stark, but gently strummed Hawaiian/bossa nova hybrid that rails, quite sweetly, against change.

There is a lot of heartbreak on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, as well as a lot of pleasing anachronism; a lot of hard-won resignation and what you might call stern vulnerability, a quality that Olsen shares with Joni Mitchell without sounding at all like Mitchell. Her soprano can be a delicate and ghostly thing on the final track, Windows, allowing in those Cat Power comparisons. But Olsen's quaver holds your gaze, using her vibrato for effect, not whining or crumbling.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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