Olson and The Jayhawks have of late become unwitting satellites, circling each other in elliptical orbits that generate increasingly rare meetings of minds. 2010s Mockingbird Time appears to have sundered any remaining gravity evident between the founding member and his song-writing partner Gary Louris. As such, Olson’s spent the better part of the intervening time on a round the world globe-trotting mission to fully explore and reinvigorate his muse. Public perception will always be a little unfair; after all, Olson initially left the The Jayhawks in ‘95 and his output with the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers and as a solo artist exceeds that he created with the Americana front-runners, but it’s to them that most people look when they think of this rightly respected writer of wonderful roots music.
What Good-bye Lizelle confirms is that Olson is no one-trick pony, though his song-writing does have a strongly identifiable core imbued with his folk and country roots. The album is his first solo outing since Mockingbird Time and 2010s Many Coloured Kite and finds him duetting with a new partner, Ingunn Ringvold. This is a rich stew of off-grid arrangements and Olson’s pained cry of a vocal, blended with Ringvold’s sweeter tones and a range of organic instrumentation ably wielded by, amongst others, the Cardinal’s Neal Casal, Aaron Sterling (Liz Phair) and Danny Frankel (kd Lang).
There’s no playing to the gallery. The songs are very much a ‘here you are, I’m happy with them’ set, as if Olson has nothing left to prove (which he hasn’t). The best art is often created when the artist doesn’t feel the breath of a record label dogs-body over their shoulder; that Olson took off at random with a portable recording unit and created as he went is indicative of the natural feel these songs have. They are stamped with the passport of adventures through countries as disparate as Armenia, South Africa, Finland and the Czech Republic, but they will sound familiar to anyone with any interest in the American folk legacy – no Swedish Psalmodicon (look it up, world music fans!) for the sake of it, no obtuse sonnet structures; fans of Olson have nothing to fear and lots to appreciate.
That’s not to say that the album isn’t influenced by his travels. Jesse In An Old World has a distinctly eastern Mediterranean feel. Opener Lizelle Djan includes keys sounding not unlike a harpsichord from a Purcell sonata. Running Circles begins as if it’s about to burst into a radical Bond film theme and then turns into a Japanese/Eastern European hybrid of plucked strings and harmonies. Heavens Shelter is a beautiful concoction, full of harmony singing and simple guitar lines. Ringvold’s fragile vocal resembles Stevie Nick’s open vowels as Olson speak-sings of the ‘…dreams of a life’.
For all that, the album remains grounded in the States and though he may not thank me for it, Olson’s song-writing still bears the stamp of early Jayhawks – witness the staccato drum beat of All These Games and the sinuous Beatles melody in Cherry Thieves, which comes closest to Tomorrow The Green Grass with its picked out piano notes and runs.
There are no bad songs here, just degrees of excellence. Intentional or not, you arrive at the end feeling somehow cleansed, as if you’ve just partaken of a quality sorbet and can now tackle anything put in front of you. To be following your creative instincts with such certitude at this stage of a musical career is rare and to be applauded, especially when the results are as warm and refreshing as Good-bye Lizelle.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Out Now via Glitterhouse
Order via Amazon