Gary Olson’s new self-titled album is a memory box overflowing with postcards, curling photographs of forgotten friends, badly-refolded road maps, and crushed packs of cigarettes. At the bottom of the pile we find a clutch of pages ripped from spiral-bound notebooks, middle school history homework interspersed with college-level creative writing assignments.
The album opens with “Navy Boats,” a song about — as far as I can tell — the late-nineteenth-century cricket rivalry between England and Australia, as Olson name-checks Captain Billy Murdoch, Joey Darling, and the great W.C. Grace.
From there it’s a short step into the rabbit hole. “Giovanna Please” introduces the title character along with Carmine, Mrs. Jones, Marie, and Cornelia. If I rummage through the memory box will I find a theater program for an off-Broadway play in which those names appear among the cast? Perhaps it’s best to accept the song as a slide show of images captured decades ago in a Brooklyn loft by that photographer who was always hanging around, and allow the simple eloquence of the music to provide the narration.
But “Some Advice” takes us down another flight of rickety wooden stairs. Are Elizabeth and Mary the English queens Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary Tudor? Or does the lyric “Nothing cuts through the Baltic grey” refer to Lord Bothwell, the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, who died insane and imprisoned on the coast of Denmark? And now I hear the unspoken words of my wife saying Every song doesn’t have to be about something…
“Postcards from Lisbon” invites us back into the sunlight. The song flows smoothly, carried by the interplay of a piano and gentle guitars. Listen for the trumpet solo, captured on a scrap of tape from 1967, and the strings that provide the counterpoint. In “All Points North” the horn returns with multi-tracked friends to create an energetic ensemble. And “A Dream for a Memory” features too-brief duets by trumpets that step forward with the restraint of Chet Baker.
The overall feel of the “Gary Olson” is slightly retro, recalling a not-so-long-ago day when poets sang of cats and Lord Grenville and borders and the passage of time and songs once heard on the radio, and when softly expressive voices were mixed in the foreground rather than drowned under a cascade of reverb. Personal favorites are “Afternoon Into Evening” and “Diego It’s Time,” songs that highlight Gary Olson’s beautiful vocal range.
The album closes with the mellow, cello-enhanced “Tourists Taking Photographs” — a buoy’s bell clanging in the distance — followed by the uptempo “The Old Twin.” Strings sing behind jangly guitars, periodically pausing for a playful pizzicato, as the trumpet sounds a final optimistic tone.
Based in Brooklyn, Gary Olson is known for his work as the lead singer and main songwriter of The Ladybug Transistor, and as the producer and engineer at Marlborough Farms Studios. “Gary Olson” is the result of an eight-year songwriting-and-recording collaboration between Gary and brothers Ole and Jørn Åleskjær of Norwegian band The Loch Ness Mouse. Basic tracks were recorded in Ole’s barn studio near Høland, Norway, while vocals, horns and strings were added in Gary‘s studio in Brooklyn.
Gary Olson offered this advice regarding the best way to experience his album: “I’d suggest listening in a moving train facing the window. Close your eyes and feel the sunlight pass between the trees. Open your eyes slowly and realize you’ve missed your stop, repeat.”
“Gary Olson” is available on Tapete Records, and on Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp. And follow Gary Olson on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.