Even if Grant Olsen’s name isn’t familiar to you, his music probably is: as half of the duo Arthur & Yu, Olsen has toured with impressive outfits like Great Lake Swimmers, Broken Social Scene, and Iron & Wine. His Pecknoldian voice probably rings a bell, too. It would be too easy to call Olsen’s new project, Gold Leaves, a first cousin of Fleet Foxes in the now-crowded lineage of woodsy alt-folk, but there it is. Olsen croons and lifts his voice like a soft mountain mist, stretching those vowels for all they’re worth and generating an unmistakably Fleet Foxy sound. But make no mistake: Gold Leaves’ The Ornament is no mere imitation, but a fully realized effort of its own, with influences reaching back to the psychedelic pop of the Shins, and further, to Scott Walker. It’s a hollow record in the best meaning of the word: not so much empty as full of space, roomy, where the sounds lean into the air and linger.
That’s not to say that this is a quiet album. Instead, call it a low album. Olsen operates, generally, in a lower register than Pecknold, like Jim James without the falsetto. In opening song “Silver Lining,” we’re introduced to a few staples of the album: muted organs, acoustic rhythm, Olsen’s voice rising here and descending there to build peaks and valleys. Nothing new, maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Olsen’s presence is one of restraint and continuity rather than of dominance. Nor is Olsen a one-man band, a la Justin Vernon in his mythic Wisconsin cabin: he’s joined by Papercuts’ Jason Quever, drummer Ben McConnell, and Hardly Art label mates the Moondoggies.
Across the album, there’s more an interest in humility than in elaborateness; the tracks often dwindle down into percussive rhythm (think The Shins’ “One by One All Day”). Matching the musical aesthetic, the album is a lightweight at nine tracks. But it never feels short, thanks to the rolling bass drums that anchor most of the record. Even as the vocals in “Honeymoon” climb up or the titular track bounces along like a cross-country road trip, McConnell’s drumming and Quever’s subtle cello keeps the sound grounded. “Take your time,” Olsen sings on the closing track “Futures,” and it’s good advice: this is an album that demands a full sit-down listen, preferably with a good pair of headphones (and, ideally, a stunning landscape vista or two) to appreciate its layered compositions. Through its happy welding of superb vocals and tactical percussion, Gold Leaves achieves a timeless quality, with a bright future on the horizon.
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