October 2022 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Angel Olsen: Big Time
Jagjaguwar (16-bit/44.1kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2022. Jonathan Wilson, Angel Olsen, prods.; Grant Milliken, Mirza Sherrif, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The first thing that hits you on "All the Good Times," the opening track of Angel Olsen's Big Time, is the pairing of synth organ sound with drums, like a weirdly wistful combination of country gospel song and high school marching band. Then there's a monster key change at the words "I'll be long gone thanks to these songs" and the horns and lush strings come in. That's this album in a nutshell: Everything sonic and emotional is fair game but carefully meted out, and always with a nod to country.

The emotional range is art imitating life. Olsen composed Big Time, her fifth album, after coming out to her parents when she was 34. Three days later, her dad died, followed in a few weeks by her mom. Meanwhile, she had fallen in love, infusing intense joy into the angsty and tragic mix. Talk about having plenty of feelings to work through in song!

Work through them she does, with courage and artistry, making well-ordered beauty out of fear and confusion, as on "Right Now," translating profound love into comforting quotidian memories on the title track, and turning pain into mesmerizing microtones in the vocals of "Go Home."

With such a bubbling cauldron of emotions powering these songs, the arrangements might have tended toward the over-zealous. But the opposite is true. "Dream Thing" and "Ghost On" are accompanied by simple chords and subdued percussion, punctuated by understated guitar riffs. Even with the many timbral elements present in "Go Home" and "All the Good Times," every choice feels deliberate, not like a facile way of ratcheting up the pathos.

Olsen is a gifted melody writer with a haunting delivery; it's gratifying that producer Jonathan Wilson trusted those melodies enough to let them soar.—Anne E. Johnson


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

Bananarama is back, though truly they never went away. Formed in London in 1980, bunking at Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook's flat and naming themselves to rhyme with a Roxy Music song, these women rode the new wave on a stiff punk breeze, ideal spokespeople for the Second British Invasion. Their 40th anniversary album, Masquerade, reminds us why.

The style of original members Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward has remained stable ever since the jagged funkiness of 1983's Deep Sea Skiving was overtaken by disco-meets-synthpop on 1987's Wow!; their steady trajectory has been toward electro-dance music. Like 2019's In Stereo, Masquerade often finds the two voices floating over the fast pulse of synthesized, percussive bass, as on "Stay Wild."

But there's more to the duo's musical vocabulary. "Favourite," which opens the album, pits an angry, minor-key melody against spidery rising triads on the keyboard. "Forever Young" manages to synthesize wistfulness—no easy feat.

Don't come here looking for social commentary. They tried that with early records, like Bananarama. These days it's all love songs. Never mind that they're in their 60s; they can still 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, who creates layers of shimmering electronica and brightly tweaked voices, balancing emphasis on the singers' humanity with blending them into the all-synth accompaniment. Sometimes the women are angels in a world of robots; sometimes lasers shoot from their mouths along with their words.

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