Off the jump, I can immediately tell you that this is not the Angel Olsen album you’re looking for. But that’s okay. Her run from Burn Your Fire For No Witness, her sophomore record, until the jaw-dropping slow-build of a double album starting in All Mirrors before being released as the compendium Song of the Lark and Other Far Memories has been a spell-binding tour-de-force. Even those (like myself, admittedly) that initially were incredulous of the critical adulation of her work, were eventually won over, and rightly so. She melded the grace and solitary insights of the greats of the world of singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell with the experimentalist glamor of groups like TV on the Radio or Radiohead. On the heels of the release of All Mirrors, we here at Treble and everyone else with ears was rapturous, lips fresh with praise; that that album would effloresce and eventually turn into merely the opening act of the 28-track, 2-hour behemoth Song of the Lark was a gift we could not have anticipated, cementing her permanently as one of the past decade’s greatest.
So it is no surprise that she simply wanted to breathe. Aisles, like the similar Black Marble EP I Must Be Living Twice and Lucy Dacus EP 2019, is a covers record. As we’ve discussed in previous reviews, the approach to cover material and what it reveals in two paths both about you as a composer and the original material as raw material is manifold, with the Marble and Dacus releases showcasing well the two most extreme cases. The former is an ode to songwriting inspirations, with connections both obvious and subtle on display that are made legible through comparing the covers EP and the previous work of the project. The Dacus EP, meanwhile, is something different, showcasing songs that do not appear to have any clear connection to her own material but instead a mixture of nostalgic odes to songs embedded in the earliest days of memory. Aisles, Olsen’s foray into this growing modern trend among alternative performers, leans closer to this latter methodology than the former. Its song choices bear no clear relation to her body of work; comparing their originals to Olsen’s now lush catalog reveal no correlation either subtle or obvious. Instead the functional insight comes when looking at the release date of the tracks—all of them from the early to mid ’80s—letting your mind roll back to a period where these might have all piped from the radio as you sat in the backseat gazing out the window and daydreaming.
This is all a way of saying that the stakes on this release are low and Olsen knows it. After such a monumental undertaking as her last record, she deserves it and, for those in the know about her body of work, this slight bit of sonic candy is more charming than anything. None of these arrangements of Billy Idol and Men Without Hats songs are particularly inventive and it’s hard to imagine these becoming concert staples or even widely circulated versions; Olsen does not threaten joining the ranks of Manfred Mann and Johnny Cash when it comes to covers that fully eclipse the originals. To someone outside of her body of work, this would be a far from ideal starting point, showing her perhaps as a gimmicky and somewhat thin arranger, leaning often more on things like reverb and fairly obvious sonic juxtapositions to get a cheap pop from the source material.
But, again, this is OK; there is little pretense on the record, no lingering sense that she views this as her magnum opus or even anywhere close to the same footing as any of her LPs. Some groups clearly put as much care and consideration into otherwise minor releases as major ones; other groups such as Fucked Up bury complete alternate histories of the band in those side releases. Olsen is remarkably more humble. These are covers, a bit of full-band karaoke. They are fun. It is a trip backward in time for a brief window to a treasured slice of her childhood, like a series of gauzy portraits, the arrangements as hazy as her melting memory of that time.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.