Olav Larsen & The Alabama Rodeo Stars (from the album Stream of Consciousness available on Ol’ Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
The mixing of cultures has always proved fertile ground for the arts. Music, perhaps more than any other form of creative expression, benefits hugely from the cross-pollination of ideas. All of which brings us to the new album by African-Norwegian artist Olav Larsen. The eminently likeable Olav Larsen's introduction to music came via his father's extensive collection of Blues records, including classics by Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson. Larsen Jr, who already has a string of fine records to his name, cites Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Bright Eyes, and Will Oldham as additional influences. It's fair to say Larsen shook up his native Norway when his debut hit, and his work is certainly deserving of a wider audience.
For new album Stream Of Consciousness, Olav Larsen takes vocal, guitar, harmonica, and songwriting credits, fronting and the Alabama Rodeo Stars with an intriguing mix of players and instruments, including multiple backing singers, bass harmonica, piano, fiddle, electric, and acoustic piano. A few seconds of opener “Hang Your Head Low” is enough to suggest that this is a class act. Over a delicate, lilting arrangement of piano, gently strummed guitar and echoing, swirling keys, Olav Larsen weaves an affecting spell, his fine, raw-edged vocals contrasting nicely with female counterpart, Emilie Eie, whose sweet, Folksy, and delightfully distinctive voice adds much. Larsen is also an accomplished lyricist. ‘Somebody told me, don't go with the flow, that same person told me, never keep your head low’. There's a lot to digest here, but this is also music which winds itself softly into your soul.
“Nobody Knows” exemplifies the mix of styles and influences which make Olav Larsen and the Alabama Rodeo Stars work memorable. There's a definite Americana/Country Folk feel. Also present, however, is a noticeable, modern, exploratory edge and inventive arrangements. Strings, slide guitar, and harmonica circle around one another, whirling about the vocals in a cloud of soft melodies and high sentiment. “The Moral of This Story” is equally affecting, though Larsen is far too good to rely on run-of-the-mill melodrama. This track, and the album as a whole, display a praise-worthy level of lyrical and melodic invention. Disparate sounds are allowed to float, coalesce and reform in organic fashion, which sets Stream of Consciousness above and apart from the crowd.
“Times Are Changing” shimmers on a slow-flowing stream of acoustic guitar, soft keys, and another arresting duet, this time featuring Stina Kjelstad. ‘You say you need change, but what is there to change, you're not even yourself anymore’ the twin voices lament. Olav Larsen leaves enough space in his compositions to grant the listener's imagination room to breathe and inhabit. “Misdefined” brings more rolling guitar, subtle strings, and splashes of keys. There's a strange beauty to this set, a poignant undercurrent of missed chances and lessons learned. Larsen is clearly a songwriter of considerable thought and depth. Melancholic this isn't, however. Ever present are feelings of hope and determination, backed by some achingly lovely moments.
The set closes with “It Shaped Me By the Heart”, a fine, rolling ballad with tinkling, finger-picked strings, arresting vocal harmonies, wonderful vibrato mandolin, and more of those deep overtones. ‘I've been acting like a fool, I've thrown away my pride’, sings Olav Larsen, and you can feel the passion and honesty in every word. This is an accomplished album which ought to please fans of any of Larsen's listed influences, from John Prine to Uncle Tupelo. (by Chris Wheatley)
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