That same year, country’s first queen, Kitty Wells, stared right back and sang, “It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels as you said in the words of your song. Too many times married men think they’re still single and that’s caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Her voice wavered the era’s fragile wobble, but like a skyscraper in a gale, Wells swayed unbroken. Her forlorn heart remained resolute, soft rage smoldering just beneath the surface.
The voice inhabiting “Burn Your Fire for No Witness” is directly descended from Wells, increasing in strength over 60 years on the long trail toward gender equity. It’s 2014 and God didn’t make Angel Olsen either.
Olsen provides the engrossing factor that makes “Burn Your Fire…” her best work to date — a woman wronged but unbowed by love. The record showcases a genre-wandering ability steeped in history that homes in on the mood evoked by Olsen’s country legend ancestors, but fails to adhere to that era’s rules.
The St. Louis-born, Chicago-based chanteuse begins “Burn Your Fire…” whispering over muted guitar, but the vulnerability dissipates quickly as her pitch-piercing wail quakes, “If all the trouble in my heart would only mend. I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again.”
Just as quickly “Forgiven/Forgotten” destroys the thought that this would be some sort of throwback cowgirl tribute, beating out a bump, bump, bump punk bass drum line. While it stands out as the most upbeat track on the record, it prepares the listener for Olsen’s many transitions, from slow Leonard Cohen-esque melancholy on “White Fire” to head bobbing Roy Orbison-style “Hi-Five.”
Musically, distorted guitars circle back to California circa 1960 with a classic West Coast garage sound. However, the garage banging also has a modern temperament, potentially borne out of Olsen’s years touring with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and other indie acts. It shines through on crazed and delightfully frantic efforts like “High and Wild.”
Olsen’s frankness punches itself out a bit in the earlier rounds and wanders off toward the end of the record — the simmering rage runs its course, languishing in melodrama on a couple later tracks. Only a couple times mind you, because Olsen’s mournful sound drives home the majority of the album regardless of how much the guitars buzz.
Sometimes, like on the album’s best track “White Fire,” Olsen needs nothing more than a menacing heartbeat of a guitar loop by which to terrify the poor soul she’s telling to get lost.
“If you’ve still got some light in you then go before it’s gone. Burn your fire for no witness it’s the only way it’s done, fierce and light and young.”
Hopefully, Olsen’s fire burns long and bright.
Brown may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2278. Follow him on Twitter @DylanBrown26.