If the powers that be ever decide to build the alt-country movement its own Hall of Fame there’s a good chance you’ll find a bust of Mark Olson in the museum’s foyer. With his pioneering Minneapolis band the Jayhawks, Olson and fellow singer/songwriter Gary Louris helped complete the house that Gram Parsons laid a foundation for decades earlier. In 1995, Olson walked away from his own band while they were arguably at the peak of their powers. While Louris and the remaining Hawks soldiered on through another decade filled with creative success and major label adversity, Olson and his then-wife Victoria Williams stole away to the California desert where they formed the Creekdippers. Ceding the spotlight to late in the game interlopers like Ryan Adams, Olson seemed content to hide out in the desert and record ramshackle bedroom folk when he was moved to do so. In 2005, however, the seeds of a fruitful new chapter in Olson’s career were planted when he split from Williams. Olson released his first proper solo album in 2007 and launched a series of well-received reunion tours with Louris which eventually yielded the duo’s first album of new material in 14 years. Olson’s hot streak continues with Many Colored Kite, a deceptively unassuming gem of an album that should satisfy old fans and new converts alike.
Throughout his decades-long career, Olson has rarely recorded without significant contributions from fellow musicians. While Many Colored Kite does indeed contain a host of guests, from former Ryan Adams sideman Neal Casal to Norwegian singer Ingunn Ringvold, who plays Emmylou Harris to Olson’s Gram Parsons on a good majority of the tracks, the album finds Olson at his most musically naked. Having tackled divorce on his previous record, Olson arrives at for his latest with his eyes opened and his windows rolled down. Over 11 sparingly produced tracks, Olson takes a good long ride across America with ample time for bird watching and flower picking built into his open-ended agenda. While most of the songs adhere to the genres upon which Olson built his legacy (folk, Americana) there’s also a sense of adventure present in the compositions. On “Morning Dove”, reportedly the first song Olson has recorded completely unadorned, the song cycles through nearly a dozen different melodies in under five minutes. The track has more in common with Joanna Newsom than anything from the No Depression set. Elsewhere, the lilting “Beehive” combines Olson’s voice, acoustic guitar, and weeping strings into something undeniably gorgeous.
Whether singing solo or harmonizing with Ringvold or Jazz singer Jolie Holland, Olson is the star of the show. His voice, though imperfect and shopworn, is placed front and center where it has the ability to send chills through the listener. While Kite is an introspective album, it’s also full of the countrified pop of Olson’s earlier years. “Little Bird of Freedom” opens the album on a celebratory note that lasts throughout, while the infectious “Bluebell Song” is an effortlessly catchy stroll down a flower dotted Texas highway. When the album’s energy begins to wane around the halfway mark, Olson shakes things up with the ominous “Scholastica”. Full of ghostly harmonies and jagged, coarsely recorded drums, the tune sounds as if it were hijacked straight out of an early ‘70s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rehearsal. Olson channels his inner Dylan for the forbidding “King Snake” before retreating to the sunnier Fleetwood Mac-inspired “Wind and Rain”.
By the time the album concludes with the delicate “Hours”, Olson has tired of life out on the road. He has returned home where he and his lover can sip coffee in the middle of the night and tend to their freshly planted garden. While a melody is gently plucked in the distance, Olson laments that there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough time to enjoy his new found personal freedom. He and Ringvold sing “And none saw us dancing together with the moon/you see we need more daylight to see the blossoms bloom.” One can only hope Olson will never be short on hours for crafting such beautiful music.
// Notes from the Road
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