Angel Olsen Triumphs on the Stunning “All Mirrors”

“Lark,” the opening track on Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, is an astonishing song: starting at a barely audible volume, it builds through six minutes of huge dynamic shifts before ending with Olsen practically screaming over loud strings that sound kind of like fireworks going off, as if the world is crashing down around her. Its loose, disjointed structure makes it feel like a high-wire act with Olsen barely keeping her balance. The rest of All Mirrors has a similar energy, owing to her manic ambition, but Olsen never falls off the wire. Like professionals in that field, she’s putting on a show that seems risky when really she is in complete control of the situation, and it leaves witnesses asking “how did they do that?”

Ironically, one of the reasons I’ve never been hugely into Olsen prior to this album is that I didn’t think her music was ambitious enough. Burn Your Fire for No Witness is loved by many, but I was never grabbed by its deliberately lo-fi style, which obscured her ability. I liked My Woman a lot more because she seemed to gain confidence and realize she could belt songs out and still shine even with increased production values. But All Mirrors so thoroughly blows the doors off those albums that it has the effect of making her past music seem quaint. Likely inspired by the extensive scientific research indicating that strings make everything better, she surrounds herself with sweeping orchestral arrangements along with synths, and for the first time it feels like her talent is on the stage it deserves.

Olsen is shooting for high drama on this album, which is a dangerous game to play: go too far and it comes off as cheesy and melodramatic; don’t go far enough and it might just be boring. She and producer John Congleton (who has seemingly recorded 90% of music I listen to this year) go all in with the strings and production flourishes, which might turn off fans of hers used to a more grounded style. But Olsen’s ambition never outpaces her skill, and her voice is such a powerful instrument that it cuts through any amount of production and sound. This is not a comparison I make lightly, but this whole album reminds me of Björk, whose music is often dense and experimental, but tied together by undeniable artistry and a distinct voice that is impossible to ignore.

Part of the ambition of All Mirrors is in its variety of songs, which display all the different facets of Olsen’s tremendous vocal ability. “Lark” itself presented a wide range, but the following 10 tracks show so much more. On “Too Easy” she sings with a softer feminine touch, sighing her lyrics above the sound, while on “New Love Cassette” she practically mumbles and blurs into the synths. The closing tracks, “Endgame” and “Chance” are each throwback ballads like from old movies, with Olsen crooning in a more classic, vintage style. While working in a distinctive slow-tempo, orchestral mode, Olsen finds so many ways to show different sides of herself — as a vocal showcase, this is an impressive of an album as I can remember.

Olsen’s style lends itself to melancholy subject matter, and this doesn’t surprise in that regard except that the songs are cloaked in more ambiguity than before. Maybe it’s just that there are songs called “Spring” and “Summer” and this is being released right at the start of autumn, but the album’s variety and the way it’s sequenced makes me think of the passing of seasons and time. The title track indicates her interest in the possible parallel universes that exist with all of the different choices we’ve made that define who we are, and how we sometimes look back at them with regret. Most of this is through the lens of relationships and striving to live in the moment instead of dwelling on the past or fearing the future. The strings lend a gravitas to Olsen’s words and are a critical part of why every song feels like it has high emotional stakes.

What makes this album feel so real is the way Olsen’s themes of growing up and changing are mirrored by her own evolution as an artist. Even with the dramatic performances and more stagey presentation, everything is still grounded in genuine emotion that connects. The feeling I got that Olsen’s previous music undersold her ability makes me wonder if it took her awhile to find her true confidence, even as she was making acclaimed albums. All Mirrors has the feel of an album she’s been building to her whole career, with all of her previous work serving as a warm-up before the real show — and what a show it is.

Bat For Lashes Returns to Her Roots on “Lost Girls”

Bat For Lashes’ previous album, The Bride, wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser: a slow, deadly serious collection of songs about a woman whose husband-to-be dies on her wedding day. While I argued at the time (and still do) that it was an emotionally powerful and worthwhile record that took some audaciousness to release, it was easy to see why many found it unengaging. It’s also easy to see why she chose a more accessible direction on her new album, Lost Girls, which feels like a much-deserved vacation after such heavy material. It’s a shimmering, upbeat pop album that sounds like a love letter to the 80s music and cinema she grew up with.

If you’re like me, the last part raises some eyebrows, since we’re currently at peak “have you heard of this thing called the 80s” culture from Stranger Things and a gaggle of artists embracing that synth pop sound. And like it was hard to argue with The Bride being too slow and difficult, it’s also hard to take issue with anyone who is turned off by the nostalgia and references at play here. But I think it works on this album because Bat for Lashes is referencing a past she actually experienced, and I sense a genuine appreciation for the material she’s referencing instead of it being a cynical nostalgia-grab or put-on. Her whole career proves this in a way, because she was working with these sounds and reference points years ago before it became a cool thing to do. Lost Girls feels more like her coming full circle than her jumping on the bandwagon of 80s mythologizing.

What also helps Lost Girls become more than the sum of its nostalgic parts is that, well, the songs are great. Similar to some other pop acts I’ve appreciated in recent years like Kristin Kontrol and Carly Rae Jepsen, this album has a charming “I’m just here to write memorable pop songs” energy coming from an artist with a deep knowledge of the craft. The first five tracks on this album could all be classified as “jams” (good songs), starting with the lush “Kids in the Dark,” which introduces the album’s themes of young love that are further established on “The Hunger,” which has a similar slow-burn style with an organ added to the mix. “Feel For You” feels almost like a conscious attempt to see how simple she can make a song with it still being good — it’s just a recurring synth part and the lyric “I love you; I feel for you” over and over, yet it doesn’t feel underwritten to me in any way. The sparkling “Desert Man” and the whispery, seductive “Jasmine” close out this opening salvo of tracks, all of which prove that Bat For Lashes can still write catchy, listenable pop — she just didn’t feel like doing it on The Bride.

The instrumental “Vampires” segues into the final few tracks, most of which are slower ballads that are in the conventional Bat For Lashes style (meaning slow and beautiful). While this album lacks the emotional punch of The Bride, it’s a useful companion for showing another side of her artistry, and it’s satisfying to hear an album that doesn’t overreach. Without having some grand contrived narrative, Lost Girls still creates its own world that evokes feelings of youthful innocence and imagination.

“Zdenka 2080” is a Quirky, Cosmic Adventure

People often approach me and ask me “Josh, what do you think music needs more of? By the way I’m a huge fan and love what you do.” I always look them straight in the eye and answer: “we need more music that embraces whimsy and we need more concept albums about traveling into other dimensions.” Lindsay Olsen, who records as Salami Rose Joe Louis (I’m going to refer to her as “Salami” because that seems fun) has delivered my request with her new album,  Zdenka 2080,  which is delightfully bonkers and one of the year’s most creative records.

It takes place in a dystopian future where, as outlined in the second track, “Octagonal Room,” corporations have used the power of the sun to fuel a giant spaceship. When the earth begins to cool, they flee the planet in their ship, leaving the earthlings to inhabit a cold, dark earth. One of those earthlings then stumbles upon an octagonal room with eight paintings, all of which lead into another dimension, and she searches through each dimension to try to find a way to save earth. This gets even weirder through the album, and I’ll resist sharing more of the plot, partially because I don’t want to give it all away and partially because I’m still not sure if I really understand it (or if I’m supposed to).

The plot is told through occasional expositional narratives backed by the music, but for the most part its purpose is to provide a narrative thread that connects all of the tracks, which are quick 1-2 minute collages of abstract pop that are reminiscent of some of Broadcast’s later work with The Focus Group. Salami’s wispy, soulful vocals combined with her quirky retro-futuristic electronics make for a relaxed mood that lets the listener get sucked in and appreciate her mad creativity at work. She is also a planetary scientist, so there is some appropriate science nerdery in the lyrics with songs called “Diatoms and Dinoflagellates” and “Transformation of a Molecule.”

There aren’t really traditional verses or choruses on Zdenka 2080. There is more a collection of intriguing sounds, with memorable keyboard hooks or vocal melodies coming and going quickly as Salami throws all of her musical ideas out there. “Meet Zee in 3-D/Third Dimension” has a beautiful dreamy segment that is probably my favorite part of the album thus far. After a brief keyboard-backed narration at the start, “Love the Sun” turns into a more upbeat piece of lounge pop that would make Stereolab proud.  While many concept albums go for epic scale, Zdenka 2080 is strengthened by its economy of sound and thought, which gives it a wide variety of sounds that don’t overstay their welcome.

On paper (or screen, I guess) this might all sound like a bit much. In practice, Salami weaves all of these elements of the music and story together in a way that feels cohesive. In the context of music now, this is a really refreshing album — one that commits to its ambitious concept and fully embraces the idea of music as a way to expand the listener’s mind, to make them think and wonder. These days, I get a lot of joy out of hearing music that is so willing to be quirky and strange.

Look At All This Shoegaze I Found

Even though I love shoegaze, I never feel all that inspired to write about it. It rarely has the overt themes that can lead into essays and I think the appeal of it is that it’s vague and can take on different shapes and moods depending on the listener. So instead of blathering on about whatever, I thought I’d share some of my favorite shoegaze from this year and then anyone who stumbles upon this post can listen to the songs via the links provided. I’m still going to write some dumb sentences about the bands so I feel like I did something, but feel free to skip them.

Chestnut Bakery – “Dust”

The internet sucks in many ways, but this is what is cool about it: I know absolutely nothing about the person behind Chestnut Bakery, except that she’s called “Rye,” she lives in China, and was in another band I really liked called Butterbeer. Yet I am able to listen to her music, which is like a twee version of Galaxie 500, filled with longing and beautiful, loud guitar. “Dust” starts out as a tender ballad then goes into guitar overdrive halfway through.

Tennis System – “Shelf Life”

Like many shoegaze bands, Tennis System is pretty much trying to approximate My Bloody Valentine, and does a respectable job of it here with a central riff and hushed vocals that fit the classic shoegaze mold.

Pinkwench – “Tuesday”

Hailing from Baltimore, Pink Wench provide the dirge aspect of shoegaze on “Tuesday” which has crushing riffs that almost overpower singer Sophie Alemi. She sings in a more straight-forward way than most in this genre and her more emotional performance and lyrics separate this from the pack.

Sungaze – “Washed Away”

As a connoisseur of Mazzy Star-adjacent dream-rock, a band called Sungaze will instantly catch my eye. They deliver what the name promised on “Washed Away,” which is a slow, gorgeous ballad in the vein of “Fade Into You.”

Fleeting Joys – “Returning and Returning and Returning”

Fleeting Joys (who won’t allow me to embed this song) might have gotten as close to My Bloody Valentine’s sound as anyone on their first album, Despondent Transponder. They’re back with a new album 13 years later and this closing track is the highlight, showing that the band still knows how to make the druggy, psychedelic sounds they’re known for.

Temple of Angels – “Cerise Dream”

“Cerise Dream” really toes the line between homage and being a complete knockoff, as it sounds so much like Cocteau Twins that it actually freaked me out a bit. My hunch is that a lot of bands would love to sound like this, even at the cost of being original, so I’m leaning towards this being good even if it’s so obviously in the shadow of another band.

Cosmic Waves – “Control”

This band from Denmark only has like 30 monthly listeners on Spotify for some reason, even though this is an earwormy bass-driven pop track that reminds me of a less intense version of Curve.

The Holy Circle – “Free and Young”

There are few innovations left to make in shoegaze, which makes it cool to hear a band tweak the formula a bit. The Holy Circle do that by combining the guitars with straight-forward balladry from singer Erica Burgner-Hannum, who proudly proclaims herself to be a mom-rocker. I’m guessing not all shoegaze fans will be into such a different vocal style, but I think it works well (plus I support the idea of mom rock in principle).

Rev Rev Rev – “Clutching the Blade”

Rev Rev Rev’s Des Fleurs Magiques Bourdonnaient was one of my favorite shoegaze albums of the last few years, and this is the first track from its follow-up. It’s in the same mold as the first, which is to say it’s a mix of heaviness and lightness and feels like getting launched into space.

Spotlight Kid – “Shivers”

I hadn’t heard of this band prior to this song, but they’ve been around a few years and have a solid 90s-influenced sound that brings to mind poppier shoegaze groups like Lush.

Westkust – “Swebeach”

The first album by the Swedish group since 2015’s Last Forever is like a sugar bomb with its very loud guitars and sweet melodies.

Field Mouse’s “Meaning” Sounds Sweet and Hits Hard

“When I get older, will I remember saying this?” Rachel Browne sings repeatedly at the end of “Plague No. 8,” one of the highlights from Field Mouse’s latest album,  Meaning. Confidence is so prized in artists — and people in general — that it’s refreshing to hear a song that deals frankly with uncertainty and doubt, especially about the process of creating the art itself. Almost anyone who has made anything, from a novel to an album to a random blog post, has asked the same question about if there’s any point to it, especially in the social media era where it feels like so much quality work reverberates in an echo chamber and then disappears.

The theme runs throughout Meaning, which contains a level of introspection that is rare and ultimately relatable and endearing. On “Birthday Song,” Browne’s existential crisis continues: “am I gonna make anything that outlives me?” she asks. This clearly comes from real life, and Browne had questioned whether she even wanted to make another album. She’s poured all of those frustrations and fear into her music, and it’s made Meaning into an album that hits surprisingly hard.

The surprising part is because Field Mouse, like the animal they’re named for, are a bit quiet and unassuming. Their songs are unabashedly pretty and catchy, with pleasant guitar parts from Andrew Futral and Browne’s sugary vocals, which are a pop hook in and of themselves. It’s a type of lighter, slightly noisy pop rock that feels more like something from the 90s, when bands like Velocity Girl, Tiger Trap, and Sarge were on the scene. I try not to turn everything into a meta-narrative about who’s “underrated,” but my experience is that music writers tend to undervalue bands like this for whatever reason, probably because it’s not considered cool to write catchy, sweet pop songs that show too much emotion and heart. (See also: Free Cake For Every Creature.)

Meaning plays off the presumptions people might have about their inoffensive sound, luring the listener in with its pop songwriting and then hitting them in the face with Browne’s lyrics. Part of it is how the album is sequenced: it kicks off with “Heart of Gold,” a breezier, more straight-ahead single, then gets gradually darker, with each song raising more questions and fears until it gets to “Plague No. 8” as the penultimate track with the opening lyrics “locusts swarm my body; think they sense a dream dying.” It’s the stand-out song on this album and one of the strongest of the year, a reflection on getting older and wondering if you’ll reach your potential that hits maybe too close to home for me.

Meaning never feels quite as dark as it is because of the sound and Browne’s voice, so it’s an album that ended up sneaking up on me. It’s a great example of how pop songwriting can enhance an album’s storytelling: these songs are all memorable and catchy and when they got stuck in my head, it made me start thinking more about Browne’s lyrics, which are timely and poignant. Despite all of her fears and anxieties, Field Mouse have made an album that deserves to be remembered.

There is No Point in Writing About This Ex Hex Album I Wrote About

An album like Ex Hex’s latest, It’s Real, requires very deep thought and consideration. To truly understand it, one must have a firm grasp on music theory and history, not to mention the ability to understand the sophisticated layers of meaning within every note the band plays. With all that said, I’ve put a lot of thought into this and feel that I’m up to the task of explaining this album’s unique appeal: it it has rock and roll songs that sound good, and I enjoy listening to them.

This is the second album for Mary Timony’s project, following 2014’s Rips, and there is something weirdly satisfying about how little the band has changed between albums. It’s Real scoffs at the notion of bands “making a statement” or “breaking through” and is content to simply entertain on its own terms without necessarily sparking an array of thinkpieces and discussion. While I’m certainly someone who enjoys albums that require some effort to get into, there is also a place for an album like this that only asks you to turn the volume up and your brain off.

There isn’t really a point in analyzing the songs, which are all in a similar vein of having catchy guitar riffs, melodies, and lyrics that focus on basic themes of having a good time with some slight psychedelic undertones, mostly from Timony’s patented head-in-the-clouds singing. Betsy Wright also takes lead on a couple of the strongest songs, the tough rocker “Rainbow Shiner” and the breezier “Radiate.” I truly intend to be complimentary when I say that this is not music that is really improved upon by intense lyrical breakdowns and deconstructions of its sound. Listening to it does not make you desire to read about it, which I suppose calls into question this entire exercise.

What is maybe worth analyzing is how It’s Real functions as an argument in favor of musicians with experience. Timony has been making indie rock for over 25 years now and this album has an effortless quality where it feels like she’s just writing great pop songs in her sleep. She has already done everything that today’s young indie rock bands are trying to do — she had her great angsty rock albums, her more sophisticated “break-out” albums, and her alienating artsy albums. Now with all that experience behind her, she doesn’t feel a need to impress anyone or prove herself, and I think that energy is part of what makes Ex Hex a refreshing band right now. It’s Real has strengthened her case as the indie rock GOAT, not that she cares about trying to convince anyone.

Pleasure Symbols Create Alluring Goth Pop on “Closer and Closer Apart”

One of the more tantalizing releases in the last few years was a brief four-song EP from an Australian band called Pleasure Symbols released in 2016. I knew nothing about the band except for what was on the record, which was this hazy, goth/shoegaze-influenced darkwave that was stylish and intriguing. Three years later, they’ve surfaced again with their first full-length, Closer and Closer Apart, after some lineup and sound changes. But despite the overhauls, that core of the band’s style is still there, and this will end up being one of the year’s best albums in this shoegaze and dream pop realm.

The sound on Closer and Closer Apart is more clear, with Jasmine Dunn’s vocals actually being decipherable instead of buried in the sound and mumbled like on that first EP. That change removes a bit of the alluring mystery they had initially, but it’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff in terms of appealing to a slightly wider audience and making more traditionally expressive music. They’ve also moved from the creepier darkwave style into a more familiar goth-dream-pop sound that is inspired by about half the bands that existed in the 1980s.

Despite the move into very well-worn territory, Pleasure Symbols maintain a clear sense of identity on this album by zeroing in on a very specific aesthetic and executing it on song after song with total confidence. The shimmering guitar, the rumbling bass and Dunn’s dreamy-yet-forceful lyrics are exactly what I like about this style of music, especially when it’s combined with this kind of strong pop songwriting. The best songs like “Image Reflected,” “Dissociation,” and “Heavy Breathing” combine major hooks with inward-looking lyrics that touch on the themes you’d expect from any self-respecting goth band: love, control, darkness, suffering, etc. None of the concepts here are new, but it’s been awhile since they’ve been done with this level of thought and craft.