Angel Olsen grew up with an unusually powerful interest in pre-Beatles pop culture, the result, in her telling, of being an adopted child with much older parents than her peers. The five men and women in her band wore matching grey jackets at Koko, like members of a wholesome musical troupe. Olsen’s singing echoed a vanished era of vocalists, with hints of country-pop pioneer Skeeter Davis (a favourite of her mother) and the deployment of a startling vibrato descended from Roy Orbison.
But it was not a night of pastiche. The singer-songwriter, raised in St Louis, Missouri, brings other influences to bear in her work, all fused together with imagination and originality. The opening number, “Never Be Mine”, from her new album My Woman, filtered an Orbison-esque tale of doomed romance through jangling guitars that frayed at the edges as though straining to unleash some wilder force. “Hi-Five”, from her 2014 breakthrough Burn Your Fire for No Witness, set a classic country lament about lonesomeness to disruptive fuzz-rock riffs. Other songs built from slow, moody beginnings into stormy squalls of noise.
Olsen, 29, served her apprenticeship as a member of the backing band for Will Oldham, the unbiddable indie musician who goes by the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His cussed persona has rubbed off on her. She projected seriousness at Koko, a welcome unwillingness to pander for laughs or applause. An ironic wolf whistle from an audience member attracted a haughty “Oh really?” look in response: the smattering of laughter instantly died out.
She was a measured presence at the microphone with her guitar, standing still, flanked by two other guitarists, a bassist, a keyboard-playing backing singer and a drummer. But her vocals, heightened by reverb, were highly dramatic. Lyrics were drawled in a languid slur, a dreamlike effect. But then the spell would be broken by an emphatically delivered line, such as the barked pay-off to one track: “I said I had to!”, sung with a curt nod.
She encored with the lengthy alt-torch song “Woman”, overhauled for the stage with an intense finale of guitar solos and drumming, a knockout end to an impressive show.