Appropriately named, Phases is comprised of demos and B-sides spanning the last several years of recording artist Angel Olsen’s career. On this release, as in most of her projects (including 2016’s widely loved My Woman), tastefully sparse instrumentation, infectious vocal melodies, and evocative lyrics are swirled into a collection of well written songs that defy any real genre labeling. Blending in aspects of folk, rock, Americana, classic country, and maybe even a bit of the blues, Olsen is adept at contorting her voice into hauntingly wistful melodies over her solid rhythm guitar parts.
The album leads in with a song that was originally a contribution to a Bandcamp comp to raise funds for organizations that seek to aid those most likely to be affected by the policies of the Trump administration. “Fly On Your Wall,” is a full band song that comes on slow with tight, rhythmic strumming but gradually slips away into gorgeous trails of reverb resembling a morning fog in the summer just before it burns off. This song is both the most recent song to be featured, and in my opinion, the strongest – the songwriting, arrangement, and production here is really wonderful.
“Special,” is another reverb-drenched slow burner with calculated guitar lines that builds into a full band number with a killer proto-psychedelic vibe. Clocking in at 7:21, it feels only half of that, and is a treat to follow as it unwinds. “Only With You” is an exercise in restraint, and one of the first tracks on the record to come through with the lo-fi demo charm of an AM radio. “Sans” has a similar vibe and features some of the best vocals on the compilation as Olsen warbles “Wish it was as easy as picking up the phone.” “Sweet Dreams” is another full band number with a bold energy and some strong falsettos. Across the entire compilation, lyrics remain both narrative, vulnerable, and relatable in a way that makes them stick – another of Olsen’s many talents.
Between the tremolo heavy guitars, subdued arrangements, and dramatic songs, Phases is really the musical manifestation of cruising through the desert on a cross country trip with the top down as the sun sets on the horizon – a sort of metaphorical trip towards “California.” Olsen excels at slinging this brand of early 1960’s Americana-tinted nostalgia, perfectly represented by the typography on the album’s cover, a clear nod at classic designs of the era. But the great thing is that, while all of the songs exude this vibe, they display the variation in her songwriting – the most dominant stylistic influence differs smoothly from song to song, but it is Olsen’s point of view as an artist that keeps Phases from feeling repetitive while also remaining consistent, even across the spectrum of her career as it’s presented here. I think generally people view these kinds of compilations as an artist’s journey to “find a sound”, but Phases is more definitely a challenge to the notion of even needing to adhere to a given sound, and proves Olsen’s ability to adapt her distillation of disparate influences to be more than coherent enough.