New Music Reviews: Angel Olsen, Better Oblivion Community Center, Nilufer Yanya, The Japanese House and Sharon Van Etten

This week’s reviews of 2019 albums covers indie releases. Indie is a nebulous word – technically it means releases from an independent label. But it’s come to define a specific approach as well – often music with shades of artiness and subtlety is labelled as indie. There’s plenty of stylistic variety within these releases; Nilüfer Yanya’s debut Miss Universe is impressively eclectic, while the rest range from Angel Olsen’s grandiose orchestrated ballads to the synth-pop resignation of The Japanese House.

I’ve ordered these albums from favourite to least favourite, although all five are very good.

Angel Olsen

All Mirrors

While touring for her previous album, 2016’s My Woman, Angel Olsen went through a messy breakup. This prompted her to go back to her roots, a bare-bones singer-songwriter album recorded almost alone in Anacortes, Washington. A few months before release she decided to make an alternate version of the record with a twelve-piece string section as a contrast. The string-infused version was so powerful that it became the official All Mirrors, while the stark originals are yet to be released.

On Instagram, Olsen stated she chose the title All Mirrors because she liked “the theme of how we are all mirrors to and for each other. Even if that is not the complete truth, still, there is always an element of personal projection in what we’d like to see in others and in all scenarios.” Strings often add a warmth to songs, but here they’re unsettling.

The string arrangements are bold and inventive, and are applied to songs that weren’t written with orchestration in mind. ‘What It Is’ is a bluesy shuffle that would usually remain unadorned, but the dramatic strings spin the song into unexpected emotional directions. Other songs clearly suit the strings – the lush opening track and standout ‘Lark’ becomes the sweeping epic it needed to be.

The songs evokes some unexpected things. The hypnotic strings in ‘All Mirrors’ recall the synths of New Order, while the closing ‘Chance’ is strangely reminiscent of Roy Orbison.

All Mirrors is a gorgeous and beguiling record; Angel Olsen’s been pumping out good records for a decade, but hopefully this is the release that gains her more attention.

Better Oblivion Community Center

Better Oblivion Community Center

Unusually for a solo artist, Phoebe Bridgers has followed up her acclaimed 2017 album Stranger in the Alps with two collaborative efforts. In 2018, she released the boygenius EP with two other indie singer-songwriters – Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. In 2019, she released Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst. It’s an odd combination – a collaboration between a bright young talent and a veteran best known for his albums as Bright Eyes in the early 2000s.

You’d expect a tossed-off fun record from such a pairing, saving their best material for solo records, but instead Better Oblivion Community Center is a delight. The pair sing beautifully together, and the songs they’ve written together fulfill the cover’s promise of “ten captivating stories”. My favourite story is about the dead friend who used to sing “que sera sera” with a straight face.

Musically, Better Oblivion Community Center is so very much an indie record that it could be used to define the genre in a college course – it has the idiosyncratic singing (Bridgers is fine, but Oberst’s voice has more than a hint of bray), the low-key instrumentation, and the cryptic lyrics. First single ‘Dylan Thomas’ is a good snapshot of the duo’s sound – Thomas is mentioned in passing, but the harmonies are gorgeous. The duo’s foray into synth-pop in ‘Exception to the Rule’ isn’t as satisfying as their other songs, but still works.

Better Oblivion Community Center is surprisingly enjoyable – two artists giving their best to a satisfying collaboration.

Nilüfer Yanya

Miss Universe

West London’s Yanya released her eclectic debut album in March 2019, building on from several EPs. Her parents are both visual artists and she comes from a Turkish, Irish and Barbadian heritage. She grew up listening to her father’s Turkish music and her mother’s classical, but gravitated to the guitar in adolescence. She rejected the offer to join a girl group formed by Louis Tomlinson, instead electing to forge her own musical path.

Yanya’s distinctive, chunky guitar is often at the centre of arrangements, while her husky voice navigates a lot of territory on her debut – she combines angular indie rock like ‘In Your Head’ and ‘Paralysed’ and the smooth Sade-like sounds of songs like ‘Melt’ into one impressively coherent whole.

Yanya admitted that the album’s series of narrative tracks about the fictional agency WWAY (We Worry About Your) Health was tacked on at the end of the creation process; they detract from an otherwise impressive debut album. Nevertheless, Yanya’s ability to create a coherent album from diverse elements is staggering, and she’s the most intriguing new artist I’ve heard this year.

The Japanese House

Good At Falling

Amber Bain’s big break came in 2012, when she was introduced to The 1975’s Matt Healy. Still a teenager, she was signed to the band’s label, and attracted attention with her mysterious first releases. Her voice is androgynous and the name The Japanese House gave few clues to her identity; Healy described her as “some weird post-apocalyptic Alison Moyet”. After four EPs since 2015, debut album Good At Falling largely consists of new material.

With The 1975’s George Daniel involved in production, comparisons are inevitable. The Japanese House inhabit the same electro-pop territory that The 1975 often mine, but while Healy is all rock-star charisma, Bain’s songs are often low-key and resigned.

The record starts strongly with ‘Went To Meet Her’, an intro track which opens out into ‘Maybe You’re The Reason’. The latter is a great pop song, underpinned by a delightful guitar hook. The production is gorgeous, with Bain’s multi-tracked vocals sounding gorgeous over the classy synth-pop backing.

The rest of Good At Falling is often more restrained. ‘You Seemed So Happy’ recalls Stevie Nicks’ vocal in Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ when Bain glides up to the high notes. ‘We Talk All The Time’ is laconic about a failing relationship – “We don’t touch anymore/But we talk all the time so it’s fine/Can somebody tell me what I want?/’Cause I keep changing my mind.”

George Daniel is a brilliant producer, and it’s fun hearing his ideas applied to a vocalist whose introspection is the polar opposite of Matt Healy’s brash rock star persona.

Sharon Van Etten

Remind Me Tomorrow

New Jersey singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten took five years between albums after 2014’s Are We There. She gave birth to her first child, worked toward a psychology degree, and guest-starred in Netflix series The OA. When she returned with Remind Me Tomorrow, she changed her sound; while working on the ambient guitar soundtrack for Strange Weather, Van Etten grew tired of guitar, and turned to piano and synthesisers. Accordingly, Remind Me Tomorrow is based around piano, as well as organ and synths.

The advance singles in particular highlight this new aesthetic. ‘Jupiter 4’ surrounds Van Etten’s voice with spacey soundscapes and ominous drum machines. The most loved song is ‘Seventeen’, Van Etten’s reminiscences of her own youth; “I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.”

The key tracks are clustered in the centre of Remind Me Tomorrow. On the quieter tracks at the conclusion, the arrangements are more restrained – ‘You Shadow’ swings along gently with Van Etten playing organ.

Remind Me Tomorrow is a departure for Van Etten, and earlier records like 2010’s Epic and 2014’s Are We There might be a better starting point.

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  1. I liked Better Oblivion Community Center a lot. They do sound very good together… it’s really clear. The voices go really well with each other.

    • Yeah it’s weird because I’ve previously listened to Oberst with Emmylou Harris, one of the best backing singers ever, and didn’t like it at all.

  2. I’ve only heard both the Angel Olsen and The Japanese House albums.
    The strings on All Mirrors are immense. The songs themselves are great as well.
    Good at Falling is a great listen and will be interested to see where The Japanese House go next after this.

  3. I’ve heard a couple of these. I’m still getting to know Miss Universe, but it might be might pick of the bunch. Better Oblivion Community Center is good and while I don’t love it, I think it’s the best way to listen to both artists. I have to admit to being disappointed by the Van Etten album. Maybe it was the change in instrumentation, but I don’t think it was as strong as some would suggest.

    • Miss Universe is very good- probably my favourite debut of the year. Billie Eilish has the charisma, so I can understand her having the much higher profile. I recommend the Angel Olsen for a listen too.

  4. Great set of releases – as I mentioned in my year end, really loved Better Oblivion Community Center – hope they record again someday. And In My Head one of my favorite songs of last year. I will have to check out the others – they sound intriguing.

    • I think the Angel Olsen is the strongest – the string arrangements are just gorgeous. And there are some really good songs on the Japanese House and Sharon Van Etten records.

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