Angel Olsen – Big Time: Review

After reinventing herself with different aspects of pop–All Mirrors–and past stark and flaky atmospheres in folk and rock, Angel Olsen continues to shape her art, making music resonant with her identity on her new album, Big Time. In an interview with Pitchfork for the album, Angel Olsen said, “I have learned to let go of the labels and embrace what I’m feeling in the moment. And I ended up making a country record, or something like a country record.” Big Time is emotionally potent and sonically harmonious, bringing new dimensions to her artistry. It skews from modern country conventions, rooting itself in more traditional country, giving her vocal performance depth, reeling you with captivating emotional performances and a sense of whimsy.

Big Time is a powerful emotional experience. Since the last time Angel Olsen spoke to us, she has gone through personal change–from coming out to the loss of her mother–Olsen brings a heavy platter of thoughts that expands on her story. In doing so, Olsen subdues the glitz of overly produced country music, and she takes an extraordinary approach that elevates the emotional gravitas. It grips you from the first song, “All The Good Times;” the drums reel you in with melancholic bravado from Olsen, producing a feel for the direction of Big Time. The album is reminiscent of a traditional style from the 50s/60s/70s era, taking unique paths to actualize them to life. The creativity within the construction of the songs brings elements that enforce its stagey presence. The engineering is crisp, creating a foundation in a smooth crescendo where each section becomes audibly potent in creation, from the brass and horn sections to the percussion and strings.

Adjacently, Angel Olsen beautifully delivers fantastical and starry country ballads creating a subtle balance based on context. One moment she’s reflecting on moments before the loss of a loved one in “This Is How It Works,” another she’s embracing the joy of love from her significant other in “All the Flowers.” She ranges in tone, creating a more somber ballad with the latter and letting the vocals carry the slightly lowly production, unlike the former, where its strength comes on both ends vibrantly. Angel Olsen notes her sensibilities effervescently, aiming at encapsulating conflicting emotions with ease. It’s an album that feels true to itself, never toeing a line of obscurity. She delivers potent and poignant material, increasing the length of our emotional response from listening to the album, and it wouldn’t be right of me if I didn’t say Big Time brings tears, whether metaphorical or literal.

The eponymous track, “Big Time,” offers a flurry of distinguishingly haunting but starry string orchestration, bringing this sense of accepting identity. It’s a sonic consistency that is eloquently heard through some of the softer songs, like “Dream Thing” and “Go Home.” Angel Olsen brings over arching dualities that offer connectivity between artist and listener as her words hit closer to the heart. Olsen sings about identity, love, mistakes, and loneliness, bringing that sense of connectivity through memories and allowing time to act as a concept that prolongs our actions and inactions. She has a way to get your hips swaying slowly, bringing the spirit of an old country-blues bar local performance while reflecting these thematic complexities effectively. It’s something she reflects eloquently through her accompanying short film; it doesn’t lose focus, weaving a story about identity and the fear of taking major leaps reflective of it. It tells the story of an LGBTQI+ couple, one of whom hasn’t come out to their parents, especially when they are ill–eventually, they pass, creating friction from emotions and using time as a means to escape and reflect.

That’s where Angel Olsen hits her stride. She grabs her strengths and works to endure them longer when evolving. It isn’t Olsen’s first foray into country, weaving elements of Alt-Country/Folk into the aesthetic of 2012’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness. However, the difference lies in how components of the genre get used within the production. Its percussion-string heavy style doesn’t speak hoedown like “High & Wind” off Burn Your Fire For No Witness; it’s instead centered on traditionalism, creating room for the vocals to blossom and radiate with ethereal melodies. It’s reminiscent of the early tempos of Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, and others of that era–think “Long, Long Time” by Ronstadt or “Crazy” by Cline. But Angel Olsen can establish her identity depending on the song’s context as they play to the depth of her heart. It’s resonant with the eponymous short film, which brings to light the narrative arc. It captures the essence of the style, elevating it to new heights, delivering Olsen’s best album to date.

Big Time is both transformative and emotionally gripping. It is rare for me to love a country album in its entirety, and this is one of those rare occasions. From its start to end, I was grasping tears while listening to Angel Olsen deliver whimsical melodies. Olsen continuously breaks down walls of vulnerability, specifically musically, but now it’s more potent. Similar to the many, I’m here for it. There are no skips in this emotional journey we take with Angel Olsen, and I hope you take that journey too.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters: Review

Lana Del Rey is an artist that barely wets the whistle after the traction of excellent singles that lead into any new release. Very few times did it translate, and when it did with Chemtrails Over The Country Club, the slight excitement boiled over me as Lana seemed to have found a better footing since Norman F*cking Rockwell. Unfortunately, the shrill melancholy and emotional depth that empowered Chemtrails have become mostly absent on her follow-up, Blue Banisters. The few singles that preceded the album left a tender and impactful impression. Though Blue Banisters sometimes fails to hit the mark, it left me feeling hollow, as if Lana kept relying on constructive consistency throughout the recording instead of digging deeper into her core. And it took me away from feeling invigorated as Lana meanders around, trying to reflect topical ideas into the mix.

Lana Del Rey can hook-line-and-sinker you with her track ones; however, it does not mirror in Blue Banisters. Opening with “Text Book,” Lana does not remedy the parallels with care, giving off faux-pa broadness as she sings about dating in an era with movements/protests — name dropping Black Lives Matter as a distinction to separate herself from the pack, albeit coming from and leaning around old money. Though she comes about it with a clear understanding, there is little substance — it is trying to make parallels between ideas like opposites attract, modern issues, and allusions to the past to poor effect. It leaves you wondering why she wasn’t able to make it any more nuanced (in the songwriting), considering she is a great writer. The latter becomes a proponent for later songs as Lana tackles various angles of a relationship.

Ironically, these kinds of songs are typically some that Lana excels in, creating these fantastical paintings with her words — it is absent here. She weaves these songs that don’t congregate in a single file line, with an occasional tick walking off the beaten path. It derives from lacking any depth or creativity with the performances, and when it becomes experimental, it begins to lose sight of its strengths — the plucky guitars and twinkly piano keys, with subtle percussion beats underlining the rhythmic direction. There isn’t a moment where Lana catches me by surprise with what she incorporates into her vocal performances. When I hit play on Chemtrails Over The Country Club, it immediately transfixed into a different realm with her sultry and raspy voice on “White Dress.” A mirroring moment comes on “Dealer.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t hit like “White Dress,” leaving you feeling like you can take it off, and it would make it a better album.

“Dealer” is unlike most of the production on Blue Banisters. It has a more bombastic percussion and aggressive strings that fail to hit the mark. Lana, and featured artist Mile Kane, deliver a song that has a wrought perspective of what seems to be an emotionally abusive relationship — or that is what came about it as Miles Kane manipulates his emotions against Lana, going on what may be a binder to escape his woes. He goes about telling her that she’d be better off avoiding these other points of contact as the importance is slim. But the song doesn’t falter because of incompetency. “Dealer” has a great idea behind it with some great production and solid vocal performances, but you’re bewildered why it isn’t better. Fortunately, there are a few songs that brought out Lana’s best complexions.

“Thunder” does what “Dealer” tries, but better as it stems from a deeper center, vocally and lyrically. The latter forms from a trite perspective that doesn’t buoy its themes well, while the former elevates emotions and speaks about a relative subject to many in a relationship. It isn’t to say that “Dealer” doesn’t; however, its broad and direct nature leaves one feeling tired halfway through. On “Thunder,” Lana hones in on her vocals, echoing a soft-spoken demeanor — usually seen in reflexive-perspective songs. In the song, she sings about how her significant other’s two-faced persona has her gripping close to the reality that this person isn’t 100% in, despite the copious talk of rolling thunder or flexing bravado. It is one of two songs that captivated with a first listen — the other is “Arcadia.”

“Arcadia” throws the first punch when Lana takes her first breath, and the first verse begins. She weaves together these intricate analogies to her body, her personality, and all that makes her with idyllic locations being representations. Arcadia, California, is what she sings of — it is a place for her to retreat to and reflect on her career when the stress is high. It has some niche relativity as someone who hasn’t been to those locations will only understand if they compose with their state. However, the production and tender switches in her vocal deliveries keep it flowing with eloquence, especially coming after the powerful ballad “Blue Banisters.”

Blue Banisters left me feeling underwhelmed compared to Chemtrails Over The Country Club, as Lana seems to focus tightly on a single note. The music has its fair share of depth, but there are a few that carry weight. If you’re a fan of Lana, there is enough for you to like; however, Blue Banisters is nothing more than a slight retread of Chemtrails.

Rating: 5 out of 10.

Yebba – Dawn: Review

It may not be apparent, but Yebba has been around — quietly delivering elegant performances through different genres of music; however, many know her as the female vocalist on “Same Drugs” by Chance the Rapper — when he performed on Saturday Night Live. I’ve gotten to know her work by burrowing through a landscape decorated with a history of appearing in songs in Hip-Hop, Pop, Funk, Soul, Folk, Rock, and more. Having worked with artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Mark Ronson, and Mumford & Sons since 2016 has given her a clearer slate to draw on as she finds her sound and individualizes herself from contemporaries. Her debut, Dawn, speaks to that as Yebba delivers sweet flavorings to the songs, which range in style — most of which are unique to Yebba, except for few moments that get lost when going grandiose.

Unlike some or many, you find yourself coming into Dawn blind. But like many, I’ve been aware of Yebba’s guest appearances and features; however, what comes to light in Dawn is sometimes unlike what we’ve heard before. Whether Yebba is delivering softened background vocals that compliment the lead artist or as a vibrant lead on Mark Ronson’s Late Night Feelings, Yebba finds ways to distinguish herself from others — further asking the light to center on her presence in front of, and behind, the microphone. She makes it apparent on Dawn as she paints her slate with the influence of sounds from the vast array of genres of her past; she hits the nail more often than not.

Yebba heightens her emotions to give each song brevity — this allows the music to stay direct for better playback. She lets the influence guide the pen, letting loose unique themes like emotional growth. In 2017, a week after Yebba released her first single, her mother, unfortunately, passed after struggling with depression. It’s been a driving force behind Yebba’s fearlessness in her vocal performances, but it has been a hindrance as it seems like she is always performing in front of a silhouette of her mother. 

Yebba opens Dawn with a plea to herself — how many more years? She is continuously distraught that she hasn’t been able to keep happy memories without leading toward tears of sadness that constantly blinds her future. It could come from some hesitancy that guides any hiccups from grasping your emotions tightly, which shows on each song. But on “How Many More Years,” it is something else. Listening to Yebba’s soft and broken vocals gives us a sense that she grasps her emotions firmly, delivering them in doses to keep us invested. She does so without draining us to our core, though “October Sky” came close. 

As one of the most beautifully captivating and tragic songs on Dawn, “October Sky” takes us through a recurring and happy memory she has of her mom. As it is with most of the album, Yebba adopts lingering feelings and notions about her heartbreak, despite knowing this is the start of something great. She embraces her moment and finds ways to show us her vulnerable side.

Yebba lets her voice guide us through her emotions, providing a deep meaning beneath, a sometimes thin, surface. Usually, it starts to be the case on Dawn, as some of the production weaves thin simplicities within the percussion. It initially feels off-putting since Yebba received help from producers like Kaytranada, the Picard Brothers, and Mark Ronson, but the small details make up for it. Despite being known for their electric percussion, it’s one of the weaker components in the album; however, it never gets to a point where it makes the whole production yawn-inducing.

Fortunately, Yebba and her co-producers start world-building on top of the songs, which deliver some glamorous standouts like “Boomerang.” It takes influence from the roots of old-country and folk — breaking apart styles derivative of cowboy-western country dinghies, roots rock, and an effervescently soulful vocal performance, “Boomerang” elevates into it. Similar to “Boomerang,” Yebba brings a similar cadence on “Louie Bag” featuring Smino.

Subtly, “Louie Bag” is like many songs on Dawn, wherein the influence comes from subsections of the musical south, from Hip-Hop to Folk-Country. “Louie Bag” has string and piano key arrangements focusing on Yebba’s verses, while the percussion emboldens a simple hip-hop beat, allowing for a smooth blend in this ode to their youths in their respective cities. It creates a smooth unification of the two, as we hear them performing while in their A-Game. In the song, They burn bridges that have been vandalized on each journey to succeed in their work. Smino’s verse contains more gravitas, as opposed to A$AP Rocky — the other featured rapper. His presence on “Far Away” is from someone standing afar from the living room window.

Fortunately, through captivating performances, Yebba is placing us in her shoes. Most times, you’re taken through the wringer as she lays out what passes her subconscious in these times. And intermittently, with songs like “Louie Bag” and “Far Away,” Yebba distinguishes herself in pop, barely straying from the overall construct of the sound. It’s reflective of Yebba’s trajectory as an artist, with Dawn acting as a stepping stone in showing us her true self. She assimilates into these different types of production that I’m wondering what’s in store as she continues to explore and grow as an artist. If you’re into an enjoyably emotional listen, you’ll leave this album wanting more of Yebba soon.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.