Saturday, March 5, 2011

Malefactors of Great Wealth

J.P. Olsen is one of those renaissance guys. He's been a journalist and a documentary filmmaker who wrote a well-received book -- and made a film -- with drug policy specialist Nancy Campbell called The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America's First Prison for Drug Addicts. (You can hear an NPR interview with Olsen and Campbell about that project.)

But I got to know Olsen as a musician about a decade when a record he made with members of The Haynes Boys as Burn Barrel landed in my "to be reviewed" pile.

The release was called Reviled! and it's a brilliant record that always had a place on my CD stand and then my iPod. It's full of twisted and heart-wrenching love songs ("Creep of Love" "Little Cowboys), sharp observations of the collision of journalism and the real world ("Andy Uzzle, "Mrs Tubbs") and a real nose for the what the socialists call class and the artistes call the "low life. ("Today is Champagne"). A number of singer-songwriters have traveled various parts of this territory, of course, but what makes Olsen so special are the surprises and twists in his craft -- crafting a chorus for a portrait of crime-scene photographer out of the words "Tagamet" and "no remorse," for instance. Or his description in ("Mrs Tubbs") of the mother of a larcenous daughter, confronted by the buzz of neighbors and reporters as "shaking like a rhesus monkey."

Olsen's newest record, Today Is the Best Day of My Life -- an EP recorded under the moniker "The Malefactors of Great Wealth -- doesn't exactly pick up where Reviled! leaves off. The new record not only has a cleaner sound (produced by Golden Palominos founder Anton Fier), but overall it's a more inward-looking record. (The great exception is the rollicking "Prisontown," where "some of the people... are dangerous" and "some of the people... are famous," would not have sounded at all out of place on Reviled!)

Though the sound on Today Is the Best Day of My Life may be cleaner than the raucous Reviled! (more the L.A. of the Association and Forever Changes Love than alt-country), the close observations of people and milieus on the latter record give way to something fiercely interior on the new collection. Songs such as "Clean," "True Ways" and "Today" have the mercurial feel of soliloquies -- associative and yet not arbitrary.

"I shaved all my hair off/Kissed my TV," sing Olsen on "Clean," sketching out a sodden landscape that traffics equally in whimsy and misery. The songs on Olsen's new record take you to a place that's worth the journey. Highly recommended record.

Get Today Is the Best Day of My Life and Reviled! at Other Music's digital shop.
Find out more about The Narcotic Farm.

No comments: