The question you might ask is ‘Why?’ Why, after two outstanding albums in Burn Your Fire For No Witness and My Woman, would Angel Olsen (or most likely her label), follow them up with such a patchy collection? Phases is a selection of unreleased demos, B-sides, rarities, and covers from various releases and in various formats over the past few years, and as with a lot of compilations of its ilk there’s exceptional and expendable across the spectrum.
Things get off to a promising start with ‘Fly On Your Wall’, a Bandcamp-only offering from the one hundred song compilation, Our First 100 Days. With a slow, marching beat and lovely minor chords, Olsen’s voice explores the scales with the impressive ease we’ve come to expect from her. ‘Sans’ is another emotive front-end triumph from recent times. It’s the most fascinating aspect of this release; hearing Olsen transition from those earlier vocal experiments to the more assured cuts from the My Woman era. When you compare something like ‘Special’, recorded during the My Woman sessions, with 2013 B-side ‘California’ the gulf is apparent. The death-of-the-‘60s Stones sheen of the former only highlights how deserving the latter is of its B-side status, a Hank Williams-lite dirge with tremulous vocals that begin to grate. It’s a world away from the opposing A-side, ‘Sweet Dreams’, a somewhat psychedelic nod to The Mamas & The Papas.
Then of course there are the covers. There’s a version of Roky Erickson’s ‘For You’ that’s actually quite affecting, and one of Springsteen’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ that doesn’t really catch fire. Erikson’s lyrics sit well with Olsen’s delivery, where you can almost hear the smile in her voice, but somehow it feels that her take on The Boss – while perfectly serviceable – just doesn’t translate with the same warmth.
For the most part, Phases is a throwback to the intimacy of Halfway Home and the Strange Cacti EP – just Olsen’s voice and softly strummed guitar, and emotion laid on the line. “How unfair to have a heart that’s still beating” she softly imparts on ‘How Many Disasters’, a low-key home demo. Lost love remains a theme on Burn Your Fire For No Witness bonus track ‘May As Well’ (“Is that my heart that’s splitting open?/ I guess it just fell to the side”), while it is the pull of the road and the equally strong pull of home that preoccupies the singer on another cover, ‘Endless Road’.
The cynic in you might point towards the Christmas present market, and you would probably be right. This is little more than a stopgap – a stocking filler for the Olsen aficionado in your life. A varied release in terms of quality and substance, Phases mainly serves to highlight the artist’s progression as a songwriter. It’s something that will be of interest to those already familiar with her work, but leaning as it does on her more folky, lo-fi roots, it’s unlikely to convert the unconvinced.