Angel Olsen – Phases Review

Olsen peels back the skin of her original music to show us the skeleton of Roy Orbison.
Jagujaguar, 2017
Purchase: Bandcamp

7.0 / 10

Look, man, I’m kind of out of the loop here. I enjoy Angel Olsen’s music — and let’s be serious here, who doesn’t? — but I can’t say that I am an active follower. I’ll say that Burn Your Fire For No Witness and My Woman were some of the best albums of their respective years, but I can’t tell you what city she’s currently touring or what brand of guitar she records with. I’m bringing this up because I went into Phases cold; I didn’t know anything about it. I got to the third track when I felt a dreadful feeling:

“Oh, this song isn’t nearly as good as the first two.”
“Huh, neither is the next one.”
“And this one sounds different. Was this on purpose?”
“Maybe recorded in different studios, years apart?”
“Ah, this is a b-sides record.”
“I really hope this is a b-sides record. But what if it isn’t?”

I played Phases the whole way through twice before looking up its context. Luckily, yes, it is a b-sides record, with a few songs saved from the cutting-room floor, a few covers, you know how it works. You could say Phases is to Angel Olsen as Pisces Iscariot is to Smashing Pumpkin. Fine enough records and we can tell our friends that we really like the “raw, emotional feeling that these outtakes have”, but let’s not kid ourselves. They’re not as good as the quote-unquote real deals, My Woman or Burn Your Fire For No Witness. The covers are fine, and they’re pulled from mostly undiscovered folk tracks (at least to this reviewer), but Olsen spins them in a way that sounds like an original if a bit stripped back.

The best thing about Phases, however, may be the glimpse it gives us of Angel Olsen the fan of music. It has always been apparent that she has a certain fondness for pre-Beatles rock music. And on Phases, she often sounds her most Roy Orbison-esque, not only in her jangling guitars but in her quivering croons. It’s not necessarily a good thing, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s an interesting thing, almost like peeling back the contemporary layers of Olsen’s original music to find this dusty old skeleton. This record may be a stopgap release until Olsen releases her next album, and it’s a nice diversion. For now.

Key Tracks:
“Special”
“Fly On The Wall”