Angel Olsen has been quite the world traveler since she released her breakout album in 2014, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. In the weeks before her visit to St. Louis, she played popular venues such as Webster Hall in New York and Thalia Hall in Chicago as well as the Pop Montreal festival. A month ago she appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Secondary market tickets to the sold out show were going for quadruple the face value, a rare occurrence for the venue.
Performing at Off Broadway in support of her fantastic new album, My Woman, released a few weeks ago on Jagjaguwar, Olsen dazzled the sold out venue with careful, minimalist renditions of songs throughout her catalog and a few vivacious rockers, showing off her talented five member backing band.
Setting a hushed tone, her first song, "Hi-Five," carried a 1950s girl group vibe, slide guitar interplaying with her crystal clear vocals, while her recent single, "Shut Up Kiss Me," featured Pixies guitar stylings and had the crowd bobbing throughout the garage rocker.
Calming things down again, Olsen followed with "Lights Out," a memorable song from Burn Your Fire. The lonesome lead guitar work and her haunting voice captivated the crowd only to blow their minds in the end with a wall of guitar sound wrapping up the song.
The unique poetry Olsen brings to songwriting has been part of what has drawn audiences to her -- from her days playing venues like the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center and the Creepy Crawl a decade ago until now at venues worldwide. That gift shown on "Heart-Shaped Face," as she pleaded, "Was it me you were thinking of all the time when you thought of me? Or was it your mother? Or was it your shelter? Or was it another with a heart-shaped face?"
Olsen has achieved the rare feat of enjoying commercial success without having to hop on the endless self-promotion treadmill. Her raw talent created the buzz and she has remained fiercely artistically independent in creating her music. Indeed, whereas Burn Your Fire carried themes of loneliness and yearning, My Woman has embraced themes of self-possession and independence. She even insisted on calling all of the shots when it came to making music videos for songs on the new album. "It was less about me trying to make a statement as a director and more about me trying to be in control of my own image," she recently told the Chicago Tribune. Given such high-profile coverage, many may have wondered why Olsen wasn't playing a larger venue, but the decision to book at Off Broadway surely speaks to her commitment to independence across the board (as well as the sound quality of the venue).
Musically-speaking, Olsen is steeped in all kinds of genres spanning decades of the pop music spectrum. On tunes such as "Those Were the Days," "Windows" and "Unfucktheworld," I could hear Olsen expressing that range of influence: David Bowie, Neil Young, R.E.M., Nirvana and Guided By Voices along with the vocal qualities of Patsy Cline, Feist and Stevie Nicks. Not bad company. Impressive and diverse, Olsen's catalog doubtlessly will continued to grow and change as Olsen's curious nature and her desire to learn about different musical highways and byways carries her into the musical future.
In 2001, the Dandy Warhols foretold the rise of the hipster. Their radio-friendly hit "Bohemian Like You" was a tongue-in-cheek ode to the kids they saw every day on the streets of Portland. With a catchy swing and sing-a-long-able "oooh ooohs," frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor described a growing underclass of twenty-somethings who played in bands, couch-surfed and went vegan. It's been 16 years and five albums since then and the song seems almost quaint were not for the fact that the Dandys have stuck around, churning out five albums, several compilations, and a prize-winning documentary. They've managed to sound the same while sounding different on each album, thanks to a sometimes uncategorizable mash of gritty guitar rock that also has a polished, 90s-era Britpop sheen. It's spacey grunge, with nods to psychedelia. However, their latest offering, Distortland, features a stripped-back sound that still sounds Dandy Warhols-ish, distorted but bare-bones -- a stylistic turn begun with their last record, This Machine. As usual, the tracklist is equal parts catchy pop "All the Girls in London" and pensive jams like "STYGGO" and "Give." Songs built around repetitive samples or hooks delivered by Zia McCabe's keyboard can frequently bury the hushed baritone of lead vocalist Courtney Taylor-Taylor, whose mischievous lyrics are delivered in either a near-whisper or a flat, almost insolent tone, depending on the amount of amperage coming from Pete Holmstrom's guitar. Therefore, it's easy to miss lines like, "All my friends are mommies" (from "The Grow Up Song"); however, a fair amount of Distortland is Taylor-Taylor simply crooning, wordlessly, into an effects-laden microphone, as understated beats and hooks swirl around him. Lately, the Dandy Warhols have been heavier on atmosphere than wordplay.
Distortland may seem sleepier than some of the Dandys' previous work, although longtime fans know that the band has always had a penchant for rainy day lo-fi: in my opinion they don't get enough credit for helping inspire the current crop of proto-shoegazers. Their Capitol Records-era catalog is remembered for their jangly, grunge-rock take on the Velvet Underground, but fully one-half of records like Dandys Rule OK and ...The Dandy Warhols Come Down were made for burrowing under a quilt to "sleep forever," as Taylor-Taylor crooned plaintively in "Sleep" from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia.
But while the psychedelic paeans are less grand on Distortland than in previous releases, this mostly laid-back record contains a few unexpected touches. "Doves," for example, builds slowly before sprawling into a psychedelic jam -- then ends so abruptly, I thought my computer had gone to sleep and cut off the rest of the song. "You Are Killing Me" is driven entirely by a pick on a chunky C chord, distant-sounding backup vocals by McCabe, and a few cymbal crashes here and there to complete the song. "Search Party" kicks off the album with a crisp acoustic guitar loop and a lot of expansive, whispery "aaaaaaaaaahhhhhs" from Taylor-Taylor; it doesn't change course until the final seconds with a few handclaps and what sounds like a bridge -- at least, until it doesn't go into another verse but cuts out. It's a good album opener and perhaps even a better opening-credit choice for a road trip movie. "Semper Fidelis" fell flat for me; it's pieced together from samples and some post-production flourishes that don't really gel; at times, it feels like the sound engineer is just randomly swirling the button to Taylor-Taylor's vocals back and forth to see what happens.
Lyrically, the Dandys have continued in their tradition of packing in-jokes into each songs. But this time around, the punch line is more overt -- if only because we are on our sixth season of Portlandia and the peculiarities of the Pacific Northwest have become a pop culture touchpoint across the U.S. The title of the album, of course, is a direct nod to Portland, the rainy town full of hipster oddities that most of the Dandys have called home since the early 90s. In its own way, each song is a snapshot of a different Portland personality. "Pope Reverend Jim," for example, pays tribute to a street character, or conglomeration of characters. In "STYGGO," Taylor-Taylor empathizes, albeit snidely, with up-and-comers: "Trying to follow your calling but your reception is appalling / Everybody's sailing on the same ship that they sell ya / Higher oh, it's not all the things that they tell ya." Perhaps more than an ode to their hometown, the album is Taylor-Taylor's reckoning of himself in this new Portland. "I won't give you away," he says over and over in "Give," a verse that seems less about a specific someone than about a previous version of himself. "The Grow Up Song" concludes with "Goodnight to drunkies / Cigarette smoky cokey guy only bugs me / I've got to admit / I'm too old for this shit." The album appears to be the way that the Dandys -- and as the main songwriter, Taylor-Taylor in particular -- are coming to terms both with the fact that Portland has become a cultural juggernaut and with the fact that they are now practically the elder statesmen/women of this new, unrecognizable place. Distortland listens like an ode of sorts, a shaky reassessment of art and life as a middle-aged hipster wakes up, stretches, and looks out over the river to take stock of the new wave of urban bohemians he inspired.
The Allah-Las are a band of sun-kissed boys, at times a little pleased with themselves, who nonetheless create beautiful pop melodies that wash over your body like so much Pacific surf. They are described, or perhaps pigeonholed, as a group of like-minded mates with shared interests in vintage California rock and have drawn comparisons to the Zombies and the Kinks. If that's their schtick, then it's working for them: a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Off Broadway on a rainy Friday evening to sway and sweat as the four-piece band (plus a touring keyboardist) rolled through a set blending old and new material in support of their 2016 release, Calico Review. Although the average song length was probably the classic three minutes, the mood seemed unhurried, even languid. The band treated us to an extended intro to the first song, a wordless garage rock jam that could have just been five guys in a living room warming up. When the tune changed course to become "Tell Me (What's On Your Mind)," loud applause swelled into the rafters. Vocalist/guitarist Miles Michaud broke a string, and the band played on -- more impromptu instrumentals as he made hasty repairs, this time a swinging little number complementing the clinking glass, laughter, and background noise of a crowd anxious to hear more. All fixed up, we were swept right into "Follow You Down," immediately followed by "Busman's Holiday," a ballad overlooked from 2012's Worship the Sun -- rollicking drum fills call to mind the crest and fall of waves on a beach, while guitarist Pedum Siadatian's nimble flourishes punctuate an otherwise bass-driven contemplation.
Between songs, there was little banter -- Michaud flashed a few warm smiles in appreciation of the crowd, but onstage interaction or antics were nonexistent. However, the members' own contributions to songwriting were showcased through the sharing of lead vocals. Nearly everyone got a turn at the mic, from Siadatian on "Catalina" to drummer Matthew Correia on several, including "Long Journey" during the encore, delivered with a gravelly, almost menacing sneer while double-fisting a set of maracas. Even bassist Spencer Dunham got in on the action with "200 South La Brea." The changes in song structure and styling, reflective of each member's personal touch, were subtle. Despite this general mood -- lazy harmonies, similar chord progressions with a few inventive licks, the set never felt repetitive -- a testament to some serious songwriting chops underneath that throwback LA surf label. These guys are paying homage, but with a twist.
The set picked up speed toward the end, with crowd favorite "Catamaran" and a two-song encore, during which Michaud picked up some steam, lurching up and down at his microphone, wailing away at a tambourine which he then wore as a hat on his way off the stage. As the crowd filed out to smoke and buy records by the dozens, I was struck by the dissonance between the (mostly) restrained, almost dreamlike set and the upbeat crowd. Allah-Las write songs that are almost wistful in their acknowledgment of LA's grim undercurrent, the daily shattering of dreams in a city where everyone wants to shine bright. It's a world seemingly far removed from the Cherokee Street Historic District, where the main concern of Off Broadway staff sometimes seems getting people to quit parking off President Street. Yet the timeless (that word!) melodies, a backdrop against which odes to pretty girls and lost dreams are sung, seemed to resonate with us all. With every record, Allah-Las improve musically and the sunnier their sound, the darker their lyrics. Their live show, grittier than recordings, brought out that dissonance.
From their earthy Rocky Mountain roots, Elephant Revival brought a sense of musical communion to speak justly for themselves and unify those in attendance in a well-received performance at the St. Louis Folk and Roots Festival Saturday night. Now in its fifth year, arrangers Kelly Wells and her husband Ryan Spearman dug into their past spent in Colorado to task some old friends to the headline this year's event at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Setting the tone for the evening was two-time National swing fiddle champion Katie Glassman and her partner, guitar player Greg Schochet. The Colorado-based duo, who also play together in another project, Katie Glassman and Snapshot, effortlessly picked their way through the American songbook during their 50 minute set with folk traditional numbers, songs by notable folk songwriters as well as swing jazz and Texas fiddle tunes. The set list demonstrated their wide-range of tastes and influences with "Old Grey Mare" by Norman Blake, Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," Jimmie Rodgers' "Peach Pickin' Time," and even featured a song they had never performed live before, the Mills Brothers' "You Always Hurt The One You Love." Represented were timeless styles of American music over the last 100 years, but Glassman and Schochet thoughtfully honored them rather than nostalgically pining for the past. Both performers shined on their respective instruments while winding together runs tightly. Glassman's clear voice stood out as one that could have fit into a 1930s swing band era group or a modern folk or bluegrass outfit.
In a segment seemingly flooded with folk groups focused on strong harmonies, Elephant Revival stands out as an ensemble moved not only by the social forces enveloping our everyday lives, but also the natural environment which surrounds us which we shape -- and sometimes destroy. A decade into their career, the band's stance may have come to use their music to put an emotional emphasis upon the issues they find important. One of these issues is the struggle of immigrant and refugee families as highlighted by their new song, "When I Fall." The group's value of the world around them seems to equal the effort they put into creating these intricate pieces.
On Petals, their latest fourth record, the band has expanded their sound with pedal steel from guitar and mandolin player Charlie Rose and cello from vocalist Bonnie Paine to augment the work being done by bassist Dango Rose, guitarist Daniel Rodriguez and fiddle player Bridget Law. To support the live setting, the quintet even added more percussion with a lineup addition.
The name of the new album serves as a metaphor for the fragile life of a flower that can be lost at any moment with a gust of wind or heavy rain, while some make it to the end of the season only to succumb to the eventual shrivel in autumn. These new songs give you that life-is-fragile feeling throughout and therefore resonate.
The tall, handsome Rodriguez led the group on a new song, "Home in your Heart" to begin the proceedings. Highlighted by subdued vocals from Rodriguez reminiscent of Richard Buckner and stellar fiddle work from Law, the spacey drone drew the audience in immediately. The set continued to get stronger with the gorgeous "Season Song" featuring the blended vocals of Rodriguez and Paine with musical saw work from the latter.
The music of Elephant Revival is both powerful and vulnerable with raw elements that shed light on our fragile humanity. On songs like "Remembering a Beginning," Paine's bluesy, ethereal lead vocal work blends the band's intricate instrumental elements into a cohesive structure that emphasizes the sensitivity of the songs. Paine further capitalizes on her unique voice to not only sing, but use it as a precise musical instrument adding her natural tremolo. This was evident as the main set ended with the gospel-tinged "Rogue River" which allowed the audience to clap along and sing and stretch a bit.
For the encore, the band asked Spearman out to play mandolin and used the Sheldon Concert Hall's legendary acoustics to their advantage to play off the mics at the apron of the stage for a sing-a-long of one of their older songs, "Good Graces." Before they began, Rodriguez made an effort to teach the crowd the words to sing along, but didn't fully succeed as it was hard to hear some of the words. By the end, the audience had made the effort to catch on though. A note to the band that a clear, confident voice to the audience can do wonders to help everyone in attendance onto your side with gusto.
To cap the evening, Glassman and Schochet appropriately joined for a version of "Over the River" a bluesy song that could as easily been part of the Sam Cooke repertoire over a half century earlier. The musical communion ended with solos from everyone and smiles on the faces of the St. Louis audience.
LouFest 2016 was not only my first LouFest ever but also my first music festival in at least a decade, and probably also the single longest stretch of time that I've spent outdoors in recent memory. Weather-wise, it was a beautiful weekend, but there was also no hiding from it -- muddy earth, a light wind, a fiery ball hovering in the heavens above. Among the elements, I was definitely out of mine. Within minutes my feet were heavy with moist, oozy mud, and several times over the weekend I came across a pair of sandals or shoes that had been left behind, stuck one in front of the other as though their former owner had been raptured.
Beset by what was, at least for me, an unprecedented range of stimuli, I sought something familiar, some traction -- solid footing upon which to dig in and get down. This is where Bruiser Queen comes in. No, I didn't just happen to stumble upon their set, and yes, I'd spoken with singer and guitarist Morgan Nusbaum ahead of time with the intention of writing about them. But what I hadn't accounted for in advance was my desire, in that initial moment, for something that simply rocked -- music that was big without being dumb, aggressive without being uninviting. Bruiser Queen's midday set delivered the kind of concentrated, uncut rock 'n' roll that is perennial in its appeal and absolutely powerful in its immediacy. The two and/or three piece unit of Nusbaum, drummer Jason Potter, and newly introduced bassist Cory Perkins make music that is fun and unfussed over. Whatever lyrics get lost in the invariable fuzz of loud live music give way to choruses that are immediately memorable. Their familiar, low-stakes song structures are classic like cocktails or the cut of certain jeans. Rather than messing with what already works, they know well enough to just do it right.
With multiple Best Rock Band wins in the Riverfront Times and almost six years of shows under their belt, Bruiser Queen are at once popular and legit. They are also an extraordinarily hard-working band -- steadily releasing new music, staying active locally, and ever expanding their touring radius, including their first West Coast trip planned for later this year. But at their first LouFest appearance, Bruiser Queen demonstrated the hard-workingness of their music itself. Like ideal hosts at a backyard barbecue who ask guests to bring only themselves, Bruiser Queen make it very easy to enjoy their music. When I asked Nusbaum what, if anything, defines a Bruiser Queen fan, she confirmed that they make music that is supposed to be fun:
Our fans come in all varieties, but the one thing in common is that they like to have a good time. They're like [makes the "rock biceps" gesture]: "Bruiser Queeeeen!" They have their arms in the air; they have a beer. That's why we have can koozies now.
The band's LouFest set traversed their entire catalogue, including songs from the LPs Swears (2012) and Sweet Static (2014), as well as the EP In Your Room (2013) and a well-received cover of "We Got the Beat" that was tipped into the middle of a new song -- refocusing the attention of casual festival-goers who might have otherwise wandered off to the bar or bathroom. These and other new songs -- including the single "Telepathic Mind," which they will be releasing on 7" vinyl in October -- found the band embracing their trademark blend of urgency and earnestness. (If you can't wait until October to see them again, they'll be playing San Loo at the end of the month.)
The highlight of their set, however, was a semi-newish song that has to date only been released as a demo, "Don't Waste Your Summer," which they've retitled "Have Fun" and rerecorded for a forthcoming full-length. As the plaintive, sad surf vibe of its opening kicked into the ne plus ultra of three-chord progressions, Nusbaum's chorus offered a not unfamiliar mantra: "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time." Day-seizingly obvious? Perhaps, especially within a genre that has historically privileged the fastness of living and the good-lookingness of corpses. Yeah, fine. But as the song swelled and softened with its alternating passages of optimism and regret, Bruiser Queen presented me with a kind of alternate map of the festival. Unlike the folded guide to the grounds given out at the entrance -- and to which I referred almost religiously throughout the weekend -- Bruiser Queen offered a kind of temporal map of the moment, replete with its own obstacles (time) and its own goals (fun). The festival, St. Louis, even the rest of summer, with its conspicuously darkening days -- all of these things are something to do, not somewhere to be.
Outside, alone, and anxiously assessing my SPF situation, having fun seemed newly doable to me.