City Paper is not for tourists
The Ornament forays into a familiar neck of the woods. You know, that spot where the acoustics are supernaturally great, where every lyric comes swathed in the most naturalistic reverb, and where each strummed chord crunches gently like twigs underfoot. This particular clearing has become a crowded piece of real estate in recent years, and some artists have gone to great lengths to stand out from the pack, from Devendra Banhart’s carefully cultivated eccentricities to Bon Iver’s embrace of Auto-Tune and saxophone solos. The music of Seattleite Grant Olsen, who records as Gold Leaves, isn’t as showy or distinct as the current luminaries of his genre, but if you like your white-dude folk-pop without an overblown persona or vocal affectation, you’ll probably find The Ornament quite refreshing.
Up until now, Olsen’s been best known as one half of the too-precious indie-folk duo Arthur & Yu, which, as the first band to release an LP on Sub Pop’s Hardly Art imprint in 2007, were sort of like a Pacific Northwest version of She & Him. The Ornament is Olsen’s first solo album, and he’s joined by some familiar names: Jason Quever from the folk-pop outfit Papercuts co-produced, and the lush backing vocals come courtesy of Thao Ngyuen and labelmates The Moondoggies. Arthur & Yu’s music was infused with nostalgia for their youth, with the band name a nod to their childhood nicknames. Although The Ornament also reaches back to ’60s chamber pop and ’70s AM radio gold—take the lush arrangements of “Cruel/Kind” and “Hanging Window”—it doesn’t get too cute about it.
In press for the album, Olsen has played up his reverence for Scott Walker, but—as is often the case with that particular name-drop—his voice isn’t even a fraction as powerful or distinct as the art-pop singer’s otherwordly croon. At least Quever and Olsen’s production earns the comparison: The echoing percussion and quivering string arrangements subtly but effectively conjure that familiar chamber-gloom atmosphere—hints of compositional drama suffused with the slightest undercurrent of menace. The music sometimes sounds as if it’s swallowing up Olsen’s voice, creating the perfect setting for his musings about feeling tiny and futile in the face of nature.
Olsen’s a poet at heart—a guy unafraid to start a line with “Lo” or reference an 11th-century Kashmiri poem in his liner notes. His more elliptical lyrics reflect an ear for sound patterns (“Our zeniths they bow with the season/Like blind appeals in the comment fields”) and a fascination with the way the natural world seems to underscore the transience of human life and happiness. Cosmic bummer, right? But somehow—miraculously—Olsen is able to address all of this without sounding mopey. “Cruel/Kind,” one of the album’s best songs, finds peace in the acceptance of contradictions: “If I’m what’s running in my mind/Then I am both cruel and kind.” There’s freedom in letting go of not just the material—“You are not what you own”—but also the spiritual—“You’re not bound to what you dream.”
There’s something inescapably autumnal about The Ornament; it’s not hard believe it comes from the part of the country where people brag that it feels like fall year round. But once temperatures drop in our more seasonal climate, its steady, trotting tempo should provide an adequate sound track for an unhurried stroll in the woods. Olsen’s persona never gets in the way of his song craft, but the risk of his relative indistinctness is that by this time next year, somebody louder, bolder, and more memorable may have carved over his initials on that tree stump. Until then, Gold Leaves will do.