Pop/Rock Record Reviews October 2022

Angel Olsen: Highligths

Jagjaguwar (16-bit/44.1 kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2022. Jonathan Wilson, Angel Olsen, prod. ; Grant Milliken, Mirza Sherrif, P.Eng.
Performance ****

The first thing that strikes you about “All the Good Times,” Angel Olsen’s opening track Highligths, is the pairing of a synth organ sound with drums, like an eerily melancholy combination of country gospel song and high school marching band. Then there’s a monster key shift to the words “I’ll be long gone thanks to these songs” and the lush brass and strings kick in. It’s this album in a nutshell: all things sonic and emotional is fair game but carefully balanced, and always with a nod to country.

The emotional range is art imitating life. Olsen composed Highligths, his fifth album, after coming out to his parents at the age of 34. Three days later, her dad died, followed a few weeks later by her mom. Meanwhile, she had fallen in love, infusing intense joy into the harrowing and tragic mix. Talk about having a lot of feelings to express in the song!

Work through them, with courage and artistry, creating orderly beauty out of fear and confusion, like on “Right Now”, translating deep love into comforting daily memories on the title track, and transforming pain in fascinating microtones in the chant of “Rentrez chez vous”.

With such a bubbling cauldron of emotion fueling these songs, the arrangements could have tended towards overzealousness. But the opposite is true. “Dream Thing” and “Ghost On” are accompanied by simple chords and subdued percussion, punctuated by discreet guitar riffs. Even with the many timbral elements present in “Go Home” and “All the Good Times,” every choice feels deliberate, not like an easy way to increase pathos.

Olsen is a gifted melodic writer with a haunting delivery; it’s gratifying that producer Jonathan Wilson trusted these melodies enough to let them fly.Anne E. Johnson

Bananarama: Masquerade
In Synk / BFD / The Orchard BFD440 (CD. Also available as a 24/44.1 download, LP). 2022. Ian Masterson, prod., eng.
Performance ****

Bananarama is back, even though they never really left. Formed in London in 1980, housed in the apartment of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and naming themselves to rhyme with a Roxy Music song, these women rode the new wave on a strong punk breeze, ideal spokespersons for the second British invasion. Their 40th anniversary album, Masqueradereminds us why.

The style of original members Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward has remained stable since the funky jagged 1983s. Skiving on the high seas was overtaken by disco-meets-synthpop on the 1987s Wow!; their steady trajectory has been towards electro-dance music. As in 2019 In Stereo, Masquerade often finds both vocals floating on the fast pulse of synthesized, percussive bass, as on “Stay Wild”.

But there is more to the duo’s musical vocabulary. “Favourite,” which opens the album, pits an angry minor-key melody against soaring spidery triads on the keyboard. “Forever Young” manages to synthesize melancholy, which is no small feat.

Don’t come here looking for social commentary. They tried that with the first records, like bananarama. These days it’s just love songs. It doesn’t matter that they are in their sixties; they can always sell sex, romance, happy love, sad love, bad love. “Bad Love” has a hook that would make Giorgio Moroder proud.

Masquerade is the duo’s third album with producer Ian Masterson, which creates layers of shimmering electronica and brilliantly polished vocals, balancing the singers’ emphasis on humanity as they blend into the fully synthesized backing. Sometimes women are angels in a world of robots; sometimes lasers come out of their mouths along with their words.

In a way, this album is retro. On the other hand, Bananarama never stopped making this music, so for them it’s an eternal gift. There is no nostalgia here, only continued joy.—Anne E. Johnson

Virginia F. Goins