Mark Olson & Gary Louris
A couple weeks back, we posted my colleague David Cantwell’s review of the new Mark Olson & Gary Louris album Ready For The Flood, and I’ve been thinking about his thesis contention that what was most missed in the work of both artists during their decade of separation was what he called “The Voice: the single and singular voice created when Olson and Louris joined in harmony.”
While I generally concur about the magic that is created when these two sing together and, indeed, their recent reunion has been rewarding precisely for the opportunity to hear that harmonic convergence again there’s also a certain irony in describing their unity as “The Voice,” simply because their voices are so very different from each other.
Unlike some harmony duos where the sonic pairing is so complementary that you sometimes might not even know where one voice starts and another begins, with Louris and Olson there’s really never any question who’s singing which part. Olson’s style is more the classic troubadour-style dusty ramble, his words frequently feeling as much spoken as sung. Louris, by contrast, possesses a radiant melodic instrument of a voice; he almost can’t help but be smooth and sweet, even when he’s trying to sound more weathered and worn.
Where they meet, what creates that magic, is a beauty left hanging in the balance: Louris takes flight, his melody swoops and soars…but it’s Olson’s graceful grit that keeps him grounded. Without Louris, Olson has a harder time reaching those dramatic heights; without Olson, Louris’ vocal flourishes run the risk of floating into the ether.
Nowhere was that more apparent during this North Carolina show than on “Turn Your Pretty Name Around”, one of ten eleven songs from their new record that populated a 21-song set. The mournful number begins with Louris and Olson singing in unison, the different characters of their voices still distinct as they hit the same notes. Then, in the third line of the chorus, Louris soars into a bittersweet harmony, and the lyric “you’ve gone and let someone, turn your pretty name around” instantly becomes deeply imbued with longing and regret. It’s “The Voice,” all right…even as it is two so very different voices, at the same time.
“Turn Your Pretty Name Around” at the ArtsCenter, 2-11-09
That Olson and Louris drew so heavily on their new record and without even playing perhaps its catchiest number, “Bicycle” would seem to indicate their high regard for the work, and justifiably so. Even so, it was clear that most concertgoers were also eager to hear them revisit high points from their initial heyday; for many, this was the first chance they’ve had to hear the two artists render that material since the early-mid ’90s.
Accompanied by Norwegian percussionist Ingunn Ringvold (who has her own singer-songwriter album out under the name Sailorine), Louris and Olson offered up five songs from 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass and four from 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, as well as “Say You’ll Be Mine” from the 2002 Mark Olson & the Creekdippers album December’s Child. (That song, originally recorded for a film soundtrack, sparked Louris and Olson’s musical reconnection.)
The results ranged from the sublime “Waiting For the Sun”, which drew a standing-ovation from many in the crowd to the sublimely ridiculous the main-set closer “Settled Down Like Rain”, which ended with Louris apologizing for singing the words in the final verse out-of-order. They returned for a three-song encore, including “The Trap’s Been Set” from the new record and two selections from Green Grass: “See Him On The Street” and the obligatory finale “Blue”.
“See Him On The Street” at the ArtsCenter, 2-11-09
It was that last song where “The Voice” in both its manifestations was most gloriously apparent. Louris and Olson begin in unison, but by the time they get through the chorus (where Louris scales rarefied falsetto heights) and into the bridge, their voices diverge into not just different notes, but different lyrics. And yet, somehow, in the cacophonic collision of the words, their music rises majestically above it all: two decidedly distinct singers, one instinctively inseparable Voice.