Vinyl Special – Strange Cacti, by Angel Olsen

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Released April 11, 2011

21 min, 42 sec

I may have spoken about my habit of impulse buying records without having heard them before. Several of the records we’ll be getting to in the coming weeks have been these sort of impulse buys – when I go to the record store (Mojo Books & Records), search the racks, find a name I recognize, and buy it essentially on the spot. Most times, I go home, listen to it, and conclude that I made a good decision in buying that record.

To be honest, these impulse buys have usually been what I’d call “calculated” impulse buys. I bought She & Him’s Volume 3 because I knew the She & Him sound and I knew that it didn’t change from album to album. I bought Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre is Evil because I had actually listened to it once before, but it had been months since that listen. I bought Best Coast’s Fade Away because I think I might have heard, like, one song.

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I bought Angel Olsen’s Strange Cacti on the basis of her fantastic NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Her voice is mesmerizing, with an undefinable quality to it. She can often feel like she’s straight out of 50s radio, with a distinct throwback folk sound. I saw Strange Cacti on the rack, remembered that video, and decided to give it a try.

In retrospect, Strange Cacti is the only impulse buy that I honestly regret.

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That’s because I think I put too much stock in my initial opinion of Angel Olsen when I listened to her Tiny Desk Concert set. This doesn’t mean she’s bad; as I mentioned above, her voice is phenomenal and unique, and the record itself has an incredibly low-fi sound, invoking the 50s imagery (audio imagery?) that I mentioned above. Strange Cacti is a straight folk record, with nothing but Olsen’s voice and her guitar.

And that, I believe, is where I went wrong. As you may have been able to gather from my library so far, folk is not a genre that I delve into all that often. Folk songs tell stories, and they exist, in many cases, solely for that purpose. Because of that, the music itself can often suffer from not being very compelling, which is a category that Strange Cacti falls into for me. As I said, I don’t believe that this is a bad record in the least bit; rather, it’s a record for a very specific audience, an audience that I don’t really believe includes me.

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If you like folk music, then give Olsen’s Tiny Desk Concert a try before you go looking for her albums. I’ll still spin this record for myself from time to time, when I need something to provide an atmosphere to work in, but I don’t think I’ll be buying another Angel Olsen record any time soon. And that’s entirely on me. That’s why the calculated impulse buy exists. Just have to tighten the criteria up a little bit more.

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