Listen Along: Burn Your Fire for No Witness by Angel Olsen

Yeah, I know 2016’s My Woman by Angel Olsen is all the rage, and now she is selling out much bigger venues and is doing real good. I also know that the 2011 Strange Cacti ep has its fans. And if I were super cool I would be doing a retrospective of her work with Bonnie Prince Billy.

But it was the video for her NPR Tiny Desk Concert that caught my eye and caught my ear, and it was just in advance of the release of Burn Your Fire for No Witness. So that’s my fave, and Listen Along, and maybe you’ll see why.

I was stricken with her voice – a voice from another time – and I loved the guitar playing and the guitar sound and her delivery and just about every single phrase she sang stuck in my heart. We’ll hit some of those on the track by track below.

Another super cool thing about this record is that it was one of three by the same producer that I got in a period of a few weeks – and I had never heard of him before! Anyways, I noticed Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle by Bill Callahan and the new Swans record, as well as Angel Olsen’s, had John Congleton’s name on it, and suddenly I had even another new hero to follow. (Of course, in retrospect I had many records that he had participated in, but just hadn’t noticed.)

I’m not sure if this is apocryphal or not, but I think that he made a decision only to use microphones that cost less than $100 for making this record, and if so it’s an excellent choice – a fantastic example of finding art by creating arbitrary limits. And I love the way this record sounds.

Anyways, on with the listening.

Burn Your Fire for No Witness by Angel Olsen

1. “Unfucktheworld” 2:05
Starts off with “I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you” and keeps on unrolling my life before my ears. I love the switch between torchy and plain delivery. A very artsy touch as her other voice gives out and leaves her alone. Strong.

2. “Forgiven/Forgotten” 2:03
Rockin start – the guitar and drums sound so boxy and present – great production – and refreshing. Somehow it’s retro and modern at the same time. “I don’t know anything,” is a great refrain – right up my alley – like the song “Purple” by Sixteen Deluxe, with a little more broken heart context. Or even complicity in your own broken heart. Also maybe a little like “Elephant in a Pharmacy” by Opposite Day, “I will be what I used to be again some day,” but without some of the anger. I guess forgetting takes the anger bite away?

3. “Hi-Five” 2:57
Again the production is amazing – so simple, but that atmospheric tremolo on the edge of breaking apart guitar, and then the take-your-breath -way punch of compression on those initial bass hits. The story – it’s like she looked straight into my life, but not the part I would ever really talk about “Are you lonely, too?” is something I would never say, but it is everything I ever say. Hi-Five. I like the video for this tune also.

4. “White Fire” 6:55
What was I saying about loneliness? The guitar treatment is isolation in a box – the fundamental guitar tones are there, and they occasionally knock against the tubes, but they are surrounded by heavy reverb and little trails of organic (i.e., like an organ) harmonics mixing and mutating and slamming hard on ringy frequencies – but just for a second. Pauline Oliveros would be proud if this were just a solo guitar piece. But it’s so much more than that – in fact, the title of the album is in this song’s lyrics. An examination of choices that may lead you along a path – and encouragement to be free. “As memories came flooding in/ The tears blew out my eyes” is enough of a line for an entire song by other writers but hidden along with many other stellar lines in this maudlin call to arms. Oh yeah – “I heard my mother thinking me right back into my birth/ I laughed so loud inside myself it all began to hurt.” Wow.

5. “High & Wild” 3:53
Back into rock and roll indie land, albeit with a much more interesting melody. “You’re gone, you’re gone/You’re with me but you’re gone” is how this song starts off – a very modern and relevant feeling for anybody who has gazed at their lover while their lover gazes at their cell-phone. Somehow this song avoids all the sad-sack pity so rampant in the genre. “I’m neither innocent or wise when you look me in the eyes/You might as well be blind/You might as well be blind/Cause you don’t see me anymore” is much a more empowered – and necessary – message for today.

6. “Lights Out” 4:27
Back into the reverb tank, but with the band this time. “No one’s gonna listen to it straight from your head,” is the crux of this song and something we all need to remember. No matter how well thought out your position is, you have to communicate it correctly – and even then the other party has to be receptive to the reality you are pitching. I love the guitar work at the end.

7. “Stars” 4:38
Ah, so very retro somehow – it reminds me of a time that we missed somehow – where garages collided with the wall of sound. How the fuck is she not in this new Twin Peaks reboot? This song is a little more abstract; she wants to sing for the world, to sing for the animals, to scream all the bad stuff away. I think she does.

8. “Iota” 3:27
A+ song name. Acoustic Guitar with that Hawaiin 6th chord, makes me immediately happy, nice relaxed rhythm, with very dark imagery. “If only we grew wiser with each breath/If only we could dance our way to death” catches my attention every time. My band The Fence Cutters became obsessed with the collision of dark and light: Nortenos tunes that sounded so bouncy and lively but the words (in Spanish) were about how the streets were running with blood, or the bluegrass ditty about the horse that ran itself to death, or the Delmore brothers singing sweetly about that kid that froze to death on the front porch. Angel certainly brings my kind of chiaroscuro front and center with this tune.

9. “Dance Slow Decades” 4:05
Most of the time and place imagery of the song is very familiar, lonely, lilting. And then the small lift with electric guitar splashes and tom tom feels like a tsunami as Angel sings “I can hear you crying/And I am crying, too/The world might be lying/But so are you.”

10. “Enemy” 5:43
Back to acoustic guitar and singing. Just lovely. “I wish it were the same/As it is in my mind/I am lighter on my feet/When I’ve left some things behind.” Me, too, Angel, me too.

11. “Windows” 4:07
By this time in the listen I tend just to let it all slide over me. This song builds from the reverb tank to the full band and almost Sigur Ros level layering before the big refrain. I love to hear all the different colors in her voice and this song she playfully shifts around and admonishes us to open a window sometime.

What a great record! If you like it, too
A: Check out some of my Fence Sitters and Fence Cutters records, particularly Extended Play.
B: Hi-Five!
C: Here’s that NPR Tiny Desk concert I mentioned.

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