Preliminary Thoughts On The Leica 75mm Noctilux Used With The Leica SL

Posted in Leica Images, photography with tags , , , on March 18, 2018 by johnbuckley100

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In 2012, when Leica released the M9 Monochrom and the 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph, the pairing of camera and lens was considered by many, including me, to be a marriage made in Heaven.  The combination of the digital CCD sensor and extreme resolving power of that modern lens produced pictures that were unequaled until, in May of 2015, Leica upgraded the Monochrom with a CMOS sensor.  Purists complained about the switch from the poetic CCD to the more utilitarian CMOS sensor format, but the big improvement lay in the fact that with CMOS, live-view technology enabled the photographer to use an Electronic Viewfinder, which crude as that first-generation EVF was, enabled images to be captured with a focus precision worthy of the lens.

We also loved using our 50mm Noctilux f/0.95, Leica’s legendary thin focal plane low-light marvel, with the Monochrom.  But in 2015, when Leica released the SL, a mirrorless professional camera with an EVF that many believe to be the finest in use with the 35mm format, new possibilities were opened.  The SL’s EVF made both the 50mm APO and the 50mm Noctilux incredibly easy to get exactly that shot wide open you’d always dreamed of.  We couldn’t imagine a better combination of lens and camera until Leica went and spoiled everything by releasing the 50mm Summilux-SL 50, another low-light marvel that, dammit, made use of the SL’s autofocus.  Suddenly, it became the go-to lens for certain images, because the bokeh was really pleasing, the color rendition was marvelous, and the thin focal plane was completely usable with an autofocus that, while initially slow, was incredibly accurate.  We thought then, that’s it: there couldn’t be a better combination of camera and lens for stationary images.  And then yesterday, my 75 MM Noctilux-M arrived.

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Yes, when word that Leica was releasing a lens that had a shorter minimum focal distance than the 50mm Noctilux and, nine years after that version of the Noctilux was released, it also claimed to have a variety of other improvements, we were intrigued but not sold.  And then we thought it through.  We are fortunate to have both the 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph, that manual focus gem mentioned in the first paragraph, and the SL-50mm Summilux.  Why did we actually still need the *50mm* Noctilux?  Moreover, if we traded that Nocti in, as well as our 75mm APO-Summicron — a lens we loved but seldom used — we could get within striking distance of the very expensive 75mm Noctilux.  And so we traded in our 50mm Noctilux and 75mm APO-Summicron and waited, somewhat impatiently, for the new 75mm Noctilux to arrive.

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First impressions of this lens, when used with with the Leica SL, are that it is every bit the match of that 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph and Monochrom combination.  And, it makes for the ultimate Noctilux experience because it actualizes the Nocti into what it is supposed to be: the paradigm of selective focus, achievable through actually being able to focus on what you have in mind.

Yes, this is a specialty lens.  You won’t use it every day.  It is pretty much a one-trick pony. It may not be ideal — given its size and weight — with the M10.  But it feels perfectly balanced and not too heavy with the Leica SL.  And given that camera’s gorgeous EVF and precision focusing using the magnification button, you can get shots previously only dreamed about with a Noctilux.  For example, in the picture below I was focusing on the bird’s eye.  You may not be able to see it here, but honest, the bird’s eye is, on my computer screen, captured in pinpoint focus.

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Yesterday, I had time only to take the lens out on some errands but it immediately impressed me, in combination with the SL, for how easy it was to get the focus I wanted, as well as for the incredibly gorgeous drop off between the in-focus plane and the out-of-focus area.  Below, I focused on the technician’s eyelashes.

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I was pleasantly surprised by how little color fringing there was, especially compared to the 50mm Noctilux.  Today, when I took it to the National Cathedral, it was a joy to use in bright sunshine, taking advantage of the SL’s electronic shutter.  (We can’t wait to get an ND filter to use with this.)

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Over emphasis on bokeh is an adolescent vice.  You use the Noctilux for special effects.  One of the things that makes it so seductive, though, is the way it can be used to to create relatively abstract images in certain situations.

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The lens performs as if it had an Apochromatic blending of red, green, and blue colors.  But it also seems like it is going to be a very special lens for black and white photos.

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We will have to get accustomed to the 75mm focal length, as 50mm or 35mm are our standard.  But once we’ve gotten the hang of it, we can see many uses for this special lens.

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For Leica users, and especially those who have struggled over the years with getting the image they wanted from their Noctilux in use with digital Ms, trust us when we say that our ratio of images taken where the focus was spot on was like no previous experience we’ve had.  The SL EVF, the magnification tool, and the 75 Noctilux work perfectly in combination, even when taking into account the significantly smaller focal plane of the 75 when compared to the 50.  (We have read that the focal plane at minimum focal distance is 8cm, compared to the 50’s 20cm.  That’s a big difference!)

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Nearly six years ago, we thought that Leica had produced the greatest combination of camera and lens, the Platonic ideal.  With the Leica SL and the new 75mm Noctilux, we think they have surpassed their prior performance.

NOTE: We have some updated images of the 75 Noctilux in use with the Leica SL here.

 

With New Albums By Ty Segall, Calexico, The Liminanas, and Candace, 2018 Is Off To A Helluva Start

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on March 12, 2018 by johnbuckley100

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Ty Segall: Freedom’s Goblin

We’re not sure exactly why we’ve been so lackadaisical about reviewing Freedom’s Goblin, but we think it’s cuz we’ve been enjoying it so much we haven’t wanted to spoil things.  For this is the album that Ty has promised since approximately 2011, when Goodbye Bread, simple song structures and all, announced the arrival of a genuine rock tyro who would someday do Big Things.  That day, friends, that day is here.

2016’s Ty Segall gave a hint of what was just about to come, combining in a single L.P. all the joys we’ve come to associate with Ty over the years: patented fuzz punk, great songwriting and singing, some acoustic standouts, and even long experiments that harkened to the halcyon days of album rock (talking about you, Sticky Fingers.) Freedom’s Goblin is a quantum leap beyond anything Segall has ever done.

We’ve read comparisons to The Beatles, that little band’s so-called White Album, and they’re not far off.  For over the course of a double album, we get a virtuosic display of songwriting that stretches definitions even as the album locks in our sense of Segall as among the two or three most compelling forces in music this decade.  We get classic Segall rockers (“When Mommy Kills You,” “She,” “Shoot You Up,” “5 Feet Tall”), melodic acoustic marvels (“My Ladies On Fire,” “You Say All The Nice Things,” “I’m Free”),  but also experimental overtures making full use of Mikal Cronin’s incredible No Wave sax and arranging (“Rain,” “Alta,” “Prison,” “Talking,” and “The Main Pretender.”)  And his cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s A Winner” not only calls to mind another artist who could record albums by himself or with a killer band — Prince — it reminds us of that great Dan Ingram line from the heyday of WABC’s playing disco hits: “That song’s so dirty it left a stain on our speaker.”

By moving to a band approach that makes full use of Cronin, Charles Moothart, and other musicians, Segall is free to relax and simply make the greatest record of his distinguished career.  He seems to have grown in parallel to Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer, a rocks’n’roll artist who, contending with today’s very different terms and conditions, is making music that easily competes with the best work of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s.  That we can mention Segall in the same breath as The Beatles is possibly the best thing about the otherwise benighted age we live in.

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Calexico: The Thread That Keeps Us

One reason we haven’t written much in 2018 is because Ty Segall’s not the only artist to offer up, early in the new year, a double album that ranks as a career best.  A contender for the best album of the ‘Aughts was Calexico’s Carried To Dust, but we admit that we haven’t found their albums in the ’10s as achieving that high standard.  With The Thread That Keeps Us, Calexico reasserts themselves as marvels of melodic alt.pop that takes its cues from the Colorado River drainage into Mexico.

Joey Burns and John Convertino took their band on a road trip to the Pacific Coast to record this new one, but it still sounds like they’re playing at a house party on some spring evening deep in the saguaro forests near Tucson. Mexicali brass underscore the best songs played by an expanded combo. This is a very political album, for how could it not be when we live under a regime that has declared war on the very concept of honoring the Estados Unidos’ ties to our cultural equals south of the Rio Grande?

Calexico’s patented miracle concoction of strong songwriting, beautiful singing, and cross-cultural  grace has never sounded better than it does on The Thread That Keeps Us.

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The Liminanas: Shadow People

It’s the connection to Anton Newcombe that first turned us onto the best garage band in Perpignon, France.  The Liminanas have come a long way from early albums that showcased Italian film music even as they sounded like Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre.  The song “Shadow People” was released on the E.P. “Istanbul Is Sleepy” last November, and thankfully the E.P.’s title song, sung by Anton, is also included in this early 2018 highlight.

It’s rare that band that has to rely, for the most part, on outside guests singing can both entertain and convey a sense of unity.  But in the Liminanas, and with Shadow People, we have an act that holds our attention and esteem.

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Candace: New Future

A few years ago, when we were deep down the rabbit hole of listening to Minneapolis bands that, one way or another, had ties to First Communion Afterparty, a Twin City tipster told us we should check out Is/Is.  That band of young women changed their name  (for obvious reasons) to Candace, as well as their locale, following acts like the Shins to Portland.  New Future is their first full-length album, and we can’t stop listening to it. Yes, there will be comparisons to Chastity Belt, but Candace are much better musicians.  At times harkening to the world Dean Wareham inhabits — Galazie 500, Luna — and at other moments seeming like some Dream Pop confection, this is a debut album filled with melody and hooks. Whether or not Candace’s future is new, it is certainly bright.

An Apology To Richard Hell

Posted in Music with tags , , , on February 18, 2018 by johnbuckley100

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(With additional apologies to Adrienne Grunwald for appropriation of her photo)

About a month ago, we wrote about the 40th anniversary release of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ great Blank Generation. In an overly long appreciation, we took a swing at Hell’s 2009 Destiny Street Repaired, the altered re-release of his 1982 album Destiny Street.  We now regret what we wrote.

Destiny Street Repaired took the rhythm tracks of the original, scraped off Robert Quine’s lead guitar and Hell’s vocals, replacing them with Marc Ribot’s guitar playing and Hell’s re-recording of his vocals.  When it came out, we really didn’t like it because the original Destiny Street was one of our favorite recs of all time.  Besides, Bob Quine was on few enough records, and he’d died in 2004, and we found the whole concept off base.

But Hell was a mess when he recorded the original, it had stuck in his craw, and he wanted to go back and perfect it.  This is an artist who recorded Blank Generation twice, just to get on vinyl what he knew his band was capable of.  And Lord knows, I can understand the impulse to go back and correct something produced prior to achieving sobriety.

Objectively, the original is better, even though I can appreciate how much stronger Hell’s vocals are on much, or at least parts, of Repaired. But we took, and not for the first time, some real shots at Repaired, including in particular a sentence I’d like to be able to call back: “We understand why he’d want a mulligan on the output from his drug-addled days, but it is possible to be sobriety addled too, and some things are best left as they were.”

One should never make light of any fellow traveler in the difficult world of sobriety.  Shame on us.

When our piece came out last month, Hell nicely replied to the email we sent him with a link.  “You’re pretty hard on Destiny Street Repaired, but I know the record is hard to like, all things considered.  Still, I would bet that eventually you’ll at least feel you’re glad it exists.”

Since then, we’ve revisited Repaired, and Hell is right. We’re glad it exists.  And while we’ll always go first to the original, we have a much better appreciation of what he was trying to do when he went back into the studio — yes, without Bob Quine and original second guitarist Naux — to repair what he knew was broken.

 

One Year On: The Women’s March Returns to Washington

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2018 by johnbuckley100

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All images Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux

It was 365 days ago that the horror of the Trump presidency was offset by the half million protestors who took to DC’s streets on a grey winter day when all seemed otherwise gloomy.  The wounds of the election had not yet healed, and we had no idea — honestly, no idea — just how awful Trump’s first year in office would be. The fact that so many women, and so many men, came out to protest him was a small, necessary tonic for our pain.

And then the demonstrations kept coming — the spontaneous demonstrations against the Muslim Ban, the planned marches we marked on our calendar and planned our weekends around, from the March for Science in April to the March for Puerto Rico in October.  There have been so many marches, in fact, that we created a gallery of images entitled “Washington Demonstrations In The Age of Trump.” Honestly, these demonstrations, these opportunities to express our profound disapproval of the dotard in the White House, were — aside from being able to canvas in Virginia, to cheer the night Alabama went blue — the only relief we have had, it seems, in this long year since the inauguration.  And happily, today in DC and around the country, crowds came out again to protest after a heinous week that was the capstone to a horrid year.

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Once again the crowds were joyous, despite it all.  And we were out there once again with our Leica M10 and 35mm Summilux.  Now, if you don’t care about Leicas, just scroll down to the pictures.  But this was also the one-year anniversary of our having a Leica M10, essentially the 4th generation of Leica’s digital rangefinder built on the frame of the Leica M, using the greatest collection of lenses in photography.  After one year using the M10 in these marches (we used our SL only once, during the March for Science, in a downpour), we can report that it is the best Leica M of all time, a workhorse, a reliable and intuitive camera.  Going out with it to capture the demonstrations against Trump has been one of the best things about a horrific year.  Enjoy the rest of these snaps from today.

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The 40th Anniversary Release of Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” Brings Back The Greatest Punk Album That Wasn’t Really A “Punk” Album

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2018 by johnbuckley100

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In the wonderful liner notes accompanying Blank Generation: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, guitarist Ivan Julian remembers that the band was listening to James Brown’s album, coincidentally entitled Hell, as they went into the studio, two times as it turns out, to record their debut.   And reading that, it cracks the code on why this amazing record — every bit the equal to Television’s debut Marquis Moon, and one of just a handful of late ’70s records (Pink FlagHorses, The Clash, This Year’s Model, The Modern Dance, More Songs About Buildings and Food…) that have stood the test of time — sounds the way it does.  Because, children, Richard Hell & The Voidoids could swing, and it certainly wasn’t the rhythm section, with future Ramone Mark Bell on drums and Hell on bass, that did it.  You see, for an album heralded as a classic punk record from that first generation of CBGB bands, Blank Generation sure was funky, and Lord, was this band tight.

We remember the first time we heard it, in our campus housing at Hampshire College when future rock critter Byron Coley came back from The City with his latest batch o’ discoveries, must have been just after Thanksgiving of ’77, and the first thing that was clear was this band could play.  We’d never heard a guitarist like Bob Quine, except maybe for Jeff Beck.  But while we knew enough to recognize Hell as a progenitor of the New York punk scene — we’d spent the previous summer in the The City, we read the two papers we’d soon write for, the Voice and the Soho News — this didn’t sound like the Ramones, whom we’d seen at CBs, and it didn’t sound like Patti Smith or Television.  If punk rock was supposed to be primitive, these weren’t primitives — or at least Blank Generation wasn’t primitive — because on vinyl the Voidoids could turn on a dime, Quine and Julian’s rhythm and lead guitar playing was as tight as Keith and Mick Taylor, and the whole band was as propulsive as, well, James Brown’s J.B.s.  Even as Hell’s singing, and the affect was, well, okay, primitive, and even as they were categorized as punks, this was a band, and an album, that wasn’t an alternative anything — they were the real deal. And this was as exciting a record as that moment produced.

So here we are, 40 years later, and Richard’s a revered icon in the Village, known as much for his superb rock criticism and lovely 2013 memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp as he is for having produced two of the best records from New York City’s great musical epoch between ’77 and ’83.  With this remastered version of the Voidoids’ debut, and the addition of a modest set of live tracks and alternative cuts, let us consider Blank Generation as music.  Which so rarely happens.  Hell is such an important cultural figure — and importantly, because he stopped playing music so long ago that he’s succeeded in having us think of him as a writer, not as a musician — people tend to gloss over Blank Generation, and what an incredible record it is. (And Hell himself thought so little of the classic Destiny Street that in 2010 he rerecorded it with a different band, which we thought, and said then, was a mistake.)

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Now this may be hard to follow, but try. We have long thought of Richard Hell as sort of the inverse of the Velvet Underground.  While we listen to, and revere, our Velvets records, while we are suckers for every box, all the live shit (including the material Bob Quine, who was then a Wash U law student, followed them around and recorded on a cassette deck), for us the Velvet Underground are kept alive by the bands who channel them, who imitate them, who cover their music.  A decade ago, we wrote about the Velvet Underground as much as a notion than as an actual band. When we listen to the Brian Jonestown Massacre or Spiritualized or Jesus and Mary Chain, we are in Velvets world.  In other words, the VU are something bigger than, you know, a band who put out records, great as they are.

But Richard Hell, who is such an outsized figure — co-founder of Television, member of The Heartbreakers and Dim Star, the guy whose torn pants beget “punk” as a British fashion craze — is less often considered for the two incredible records he released with the Voidoids, than in some other, broader context.  And yet, even as we read his fiction, and his really quite excellent music criticism, even as he has become, over time, something of a quite generous pen pal, we play his two Voidoids albums constantly. Forget the broader context, we revere Hell, first and foremost, because of his vinyl output with the Voidoids.

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Now it’s true that people play Blank Generation and Destiny Street as much because they want to hear Bob Quine’s skronk as because they want to hear Hell, and while we get that — we’d rather listen to Quine and Ivan Julian together than Quine on a fucking Lloyd Cole album — let us give Richard the credit he’s due.  Blank Generation is, as this 40th Anniversary release shows, one of the rare albums from that era that, 40 years on, holds up. The world may worship Television’s Marquis Moon, and and we certainly gave Verlaine his due upon that record’s 35th anniversary release, we have always thought Hell deserved the same treatment, the same reverence. He’s not a guitar god or a lyrical mystic, his singing’s not Bono great, his bass playing perhaps tends more in the direction of Sid Vicious than Jaco Pastorius, but, you know, hell, if you’re into real rock’n’roll, as we called it at New York Rocker, he’s the real deal.  And he was the songwriter, band leader and visionary spawning two of our favorite records ever.

Along the way, Hell has a made some artistic mistakes, and they’re not always the ones he thinks.  He was correct — as is proved on the 2nd CD of this anniversary release, with its alternative versions of “Love Comes In Spurts” and “Blank Generation” — to have gone back in the studio in the summer of ’77 to completely re-record the album.  He was right to have had his compendium known as The Richard Hell Story remastered. But the less said about Destiny Street Revisited the better. (We understand why he’d want a mulligan on the output from his drug-addled days, but it is possible to be sobriety addled too, and some things are best left as they were.  Wire wonderfully recorded Change Becomes Us in 2013, comprised of songs botched in a 1981 live release. But that was cleaning up a sloppy live set of great songs; Destiny Street’s songs sound better on the 2005 remastering of The Richard Hell Story, but the original is a masterpiece, and not just because Quine is on it.)

Richard Hell’s efforts at polishing and remastering the past are worth it.  He’s an exceptionally intelligent artist who, all grown up and having survived himself, wants to be known by the way he hears his music, which is not exactly the way it ended up released.  But the way it ended up released is fucking awesome, even if remastering CDs can make something sound marginally better.

He should take comfort in having produced, in the original Destiny Street, a sophomore album better than his friend and rival Tom Verlaine’s 2nd Television album, Adventure.  And he should take new pleasure in the recognition that Blank Generation really can be understood not simply as a great punk album, but as one of the finest rock’n’roll records ever made.

Our Top 10 Photos Taken This Year At Demonstrations Against Trump

Posted in Leica M, Trump Protests with tags , , , , on December 16, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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All images taken with the Leica M10 and 35mm Summilux 

The only solace we have had in 2017 against the cruel and unusual punishment visited upon the land by the election of Donald Trump has been the ability to go to Washington demonstrations.  They came so quickly after the inauguration — the Women’s March, which was scheduled, the protests against the Muslim ban, which for successive weekends were spontaneous — that at a certain point we joked about being appreciative of Trump, as he had organized our weekend activities for us: take camera to demonstration, march, record it for posterity.  In fact, we we have a gallery filled with dozens of images entitled “Washington Demonstrations In The Age of Trump”.

The picture above was taken in September at the combined March for Black Woman and March for Social Justice.  It’s our favorite image of the year because, for once, the light was decent, but also because it reflects  what happened in this awful, yet miraculous year of resistance.  See, two competing events merged into one, because the cause was unifying.  The white woman is out of place, but so what — this is the way we’re going to get out of this mess, as Virginia and Alabama show: white women and black women turning out in record numbers to vote these creeps from office.  So call that image our designated #1 picture of this year of demonstrations.  And, ah, what the Hell, here are 14 more from a remarkable year of political activity across the four seasons:

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Angel Olsen Burns Her Fire At The 9:30 Club

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 15, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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Angel Olsen’s voice is some kind of miracle, an 18-wheeler that, when conditions warrant, can park in the space reserved for a Mini.  She has a band that, on each of her two essential albums, can generate extreme heat at comparatively low volumes — think of the musicians on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp, Scotty Moore backing Elvis I, the Attractions backing Elvis II — though in concert they bear more than a striking resemblance to Dylan’s combos on his 21st Century incarnations of The Never Ending Tour.  But the reason we would go out in the cold to see Angel Olsen play is the songs, those smoldering, sometimes accelerating explorations along the main trunk where folk, alt.rock, and alt.country get directed by the lineman across trestles and delicate bridges toward a destination this close to the left ventricle.

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If her song choices at last night’s gorgeous set at D.C.’s 9:30 Club seemed to segue effortlessly from one to the next, it may be because they were clustered in the order she’d already chosen on her best album, 2016’s My Woman, and that place where I first tuned in, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness. If “Give It Up,” “Not Going To Kill You,” and “Heart Shaped Face” are correctly sequenced on the album, why bother mixing them up on tour?  Last night she said the tour felt like it was about two-years long, and had added crows feet to her face.  But given that her sold-out Thursday set had forced an additional show tonight, long may this journey continue.

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Her band was astonishing, and it was a joy to hear them play outside the intimate confines of a studio.  Still, the reason Angel Olsen draws such an intense response is, of course, her voice.  When attempting to draw comparisons, the mind deviates from thinking about other women and instead finds Roy Orbison, Chris Isaak, voices that can jack into some mythic place where ’50s rockabilly and early rock’n’roll are setting a rural barn on fire.  It is true the voice isn’t for everyone — Mrs. Tulip Frenzy was not in last night’s crowd. But backed up as it was by a female singer with a correspondingly strong and subtle croon, when heard live, even at the end of a tour Angel Olsen’s voice was a reason to stand transfixed.

 

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This year Angel Olsen released Phases, a 12-song compilation of demos and b-sides, and even in the formal recognition that this wasn’t her best work, it was one of the year’s strongest records.  We look forward to her recording in 2018 a new set of songs, backed by her remarkable band, played at any volume she likes.  Any singer whose voice can align as hers does to the songs created just for it, who can produce two such great albums over just the final few years of her 20s, will be back to sell out other venues, bigger venues, as she burns her fire and is witnessed by millions.

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