P.J. Olsson: Beautifully Insane

[14 November 2005]

By Jason MacNeil

Technology can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to performing. Sure, you know of a certain Simpson who would rather do the hokey-pokey than utter lyrics live. And you know that several other big-name, top-end ticket artists have been known to dance up a storm yet sound like they’re not breaking a sweat. However, there are some acts out there who’ve managed to take whatever gadgets and gizmos are afforded them to make something that is far bigger than it seems. Such is the case with P.J. Olsson, who seems to come from the Joseph Arthur School of Layering. It’s a great one-man-band approach when it works, and fortunately Olsson, while taking you into his own little heady, psychedelic world, is more than capable of carrying several of these numbers quite nicely and efficiently.

Olsson sounds like he’s listened to a combination of Cat Stevens, Everlast and Elliott Smith on “Visine” which commences with his vocals and acoustic guitar. It builds with some Middle Eastern touches as well as an urban backbeat that is far from being the song’s black sheep. It’s this groove that Olsson manages to ride in a quasi folk-hip-hop kind of way that Beck did many moons ago. The chorus contains a delayed harmony and a neo-hippie vibe that is retro and still fresh. Another asset is how varied the vocals appear to be, with Olsson hitting another register or octave for some fleeting but strong moments with its quasi-“Baba O’Riley” arrangement. Meanwhile, “Soul Soul Superstar” is a funky little roots-based ditty that has Olsson mentioning Grandmaster Flash among others. It’s not your average tune. It’s very quirky and even has something of a dance hue to it, but it works.

Musically, Olsson could be mistaken for having Attention Deficit Disorder as he rarely returns to ground he’s gone over. “Whistle Song” (which, yes, you can whistle to) is a lighter pop tune that resembles Jason Mraz trapped in his bedroom as Olsson sings the catchy, strolling sort of song just above a whisper. Just as radio-friendly is the breezy and folksy “Medicated”, which could be construed as a heavy Jack Johnson effort with its acoustic-meets-electric blueprint. However, the first real highlight comes during “Three Light Years and a Day”. Despite the fact it doesn’t hit the ground running, a chorus that shines is always worth an average verse or two. And the hook here only adds to the song’s luster as Olsson splits his time singing and rapping the lyrics. But as fine as “Three Light Years and a Day” is, “Thinking Man” just seems limp from the onset. Coming from the same musical vein as Beck’s “Loser”, the arrangement is paltry and is the closest thing to filler you’ll get on this album.

Thankfully, Olsson is back on course with a rowdy rock-dance beat during “Wheels”, which has some cheesy keyboards, a jungle-ish backbeat and some thick slabs of rock guitar a la a punk-ish Moby. But it’s his knack for crafting surreal yet inviting gems that makes this record work so well. A good example of this is “Ocean Of Blue” with its different sounds under the rather safe but solid pop format that people like John Mayer, Mraz, or Daniel Powter. The closing moments even hint at classic David Bowie. It descends into a musical madness with distorted vocals that are slowed down in speed and also some backward samples and then creepy chants. This craziness continues with fantastic results on “Flower”, a groove-saturated tune that must have been nicked from the vaults of Prince. Think of the closest thing to Cameo’s “Word Up” and you get more than just the gist of the track.

The record ends as strongly as it opened, especially with a promising and glowing “Tomorrow” that again finds Olsson doing what he does best—taking a quirky set of tones, tempos, and sounds to make them fit into a solid, sophisticated highbrow pop.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/olssonpj-beautifully/