Angel Olsen walked onto the Echoplex stage, grabbed her guitar and stood before a microphone. A few miles away, the Academy Awards had just finished. But as the sparkle along Hollywood Boulevard poured into limousines and cruised to parties across the city, the singer in Echo Park may as well have been gigging in the Ozarks.
Nonetheless, she delivered one of the best performances of Sunday evening, one whose resonant voice and way with phrasing deserved a trophy, if not a pizza and a shout-out from Ellen DeGeneres.
“I quit my dreaming the moment I found you/ I started dancing just to be around you,” she sang, her hand strumming out a few sparse chords while her voice echoed with reverb. The first song (with an unprintable title) from her assured new album, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness,” it introduced Olsen as a singer with a voice capable of delivering whispered intimacies loaded with drama.
Before beginning a solo career, the St. Louis-raised, Chicago-based singer was a member of the Cairo Gang, the backing band for Kentucky iconoclast Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy), but over the last few years she’s taken what she absorbed from Oldham -- the value of vocal nuance, the fury of the well-chosen line -- to build something honest, beautiful and all her own.
Amid unfortunate chattering and clanking glasses, Olsen was a calming influence. As she dwelled on a love rundown but stubbornly sticking around, a hush, however tentative, came upon the crowd. Then that whisper, a pure-toned breath, gave way to something larger, like light breaking through an overcast day. With the spirit and confidence of a honky tonk songstress -- think a less adrenalized Dolly Parton, or a blues-laden Emmylou Harris -- Olsen opened her throat, and the song became huge, expressive, Oscar-worthy.
Over the next hour, Olsen offered many such moments, most of them featuring a three-piece band to support her guitar work. Her voice, a wonder that can jump across notes like a pebble skipping across a pond, moved from whisper to wail and hit quick-shift yodel notes like Jimmie Rodgers, but with a velvet, sensual warmth. On “Lights Out,” her voice broke like she'd just lost a child.
Olsen focused almost entirely on her new record, which presents her in a more intense and expressive context than on her spacious album from 2012, “Half Way Home.” At her best, she offered songs about strained love and loneliness with both wit and beauty. On “Hi-Five,” Olsen sang of longing for a companion to share “sitting lonely with somebody lonely too, well there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do.” Then she asked a question, and offered a response: “Are you lonely too? High-five, so am I.”
Big voices, though, are a dime a dozen. Hitting notes may not be easy for everyone, but one look at "American Idol" tryouts is enough to confirm that lots of people are pretty good singers who, given proper representation and a decent batch of songs, could fill a 700-capacity venue, as Olsen did at the Echoplex.
But then there are the singers who not only hit the notes but also do so with so much style, grace and charisma that they can quiet a noisy, post-Oscars room whose attendees had just endured so much manufactured drama. Olsen did that and more -- and she didn't even get a gift bag.
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