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Monday, October 10, 2016

Mike's Picks #8

Angel Olsen | My Woman
Sara Watkins | Young In All The Wrong Ways

Hey, I'm back.  It's been a while since I've done a review, double the amount of time I would have liked, so to make up for lost time I'm doing a double review, a compare and contrast between two really solid albums that we got at the library at the same time. 

And how could I not?  Two of the best albums of the year drop at the library on the same day, both by female singer-songwriters.  To get it out of the way, just look at the album covers.  Both are shots of the artist, one looking right and one left, black background for one, white for the other.  One wearing white, one in black (with white polka dots, close enough.)  They even have similar hair cuts.  These aspects mean little to nothing for the artists on their own, but as companion pieces they represent the differences and similarities to what does matter, the music.

Sara Watkins started out as the fiddle player for neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek when she was a teenager and netted her first Grammy nomination not long after.  She was always seen as a child prodigy of sort, though now, over fifteen years later, she's come into her own as a seasoned vet.  Despite her years of experience, Young In All The Wrong Ways is only Watkins' third solo effort.  Same goes for My Woman by Angel Olsen, except that Olsen was only twelve years old when Nickel Creek's first album came out, and released her first proper full length all the way back in 2012.  I've always found artist's third albums to be crucial.  Gone are the growing pains, it's make or break time.  As the less seasoned of the two, there's no surprise that Olsen shows more growth on My Woman from her previous output.  It's the sound of a talented young artist having that "ah ha" light bulb above the head moment where it all starts clicking.  Watkins has been doing this for so long, she simply added some polish to the car.

Stylistically, they're both a little country and a little rock & roll, although Watkins is more the former and Olsen leans towards the latter.  Much like her other solo output, Watkins trades most of the bluegrass influence for alt-country and pop.  The production on Young is absolutely pristine, the type of quality and attention to detail you would expect from an artist of her caliber.  It's the sound of a million dollar studio and you hear every penny.  On the other hand, My Woman retains much of the lo-fi fuzz and grit of Olsen's previous records, just a bit more refined.  I see the comparison to Liz Phair's Exile In Guyville, but with less overt sexuality.  There are also elements of 50s and 60s balladeers, like Roy Orbison, without gaining the dreaded "retro" label.

The standout tracks come in the form of ballads placed in the second halves of the albums.  Watkins' song "Invisible" is simple yet haunting, with solid vocal harmonies that crescendo towards the end, though never pushing the song past it's dream-like quality.  Likewise, the over seven and a half minute "Sister" off My Woman takes it's time with the buildup, eventually exploding in a similar fashion to "Sway" by The Rolling Stones.  Both songs are placed towards the end of the albums, no doubt placed there to be a last kick in the teeth for listeners, and to avoid any thought that they are "side-A" albums.

So which album is better, you ask?  Neither, this is art, not football.  One sounds more polished, but this is music, heart and feeling matter a good amount more than technique.  These albums feel like two moons circling the same planet; both millions of miles away from each other while serving the same purpose.  Yin is in no way "better" than yang.  Pick up both, next time you have the chance.

Key Lyrics
From the sleeping life I lead
All the colors I have seen
The brighter one in front of me
Oh, the truth I thought I learned
And then it finally came along
Turned around and then it's there
All the love I thought was gone

When we were young and truth was absolute
We stood side by side defending what we knew
Today we walk together, but one's ahead and one's behind
And if there's an answer here then I am blind
Even you and I can't see a right side this time
Faith in us will help me up
When I had all I could take
Now all that I held onto is at stake

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