Kristina Olsen

Kristina Olsen

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By the time Philo got around to signing Kristina Olsen in the early '90s, the Venice, CA-based singer/songwriter had already established herself on the national folksinger circuit. That seasoning is apparent on her eponymous debut, which features ten Olsen originals and a scathing, steel-snapping version of "John Henry." While there's plenty of Joni Mitchell in her voice, Olsen focuses less on poetics and more on straightforward honesty. "I play the saxophone, and I play the steel guitar/But this old piano, it was my father's joy," she sings in the plaintive "My Father's Piano," and goes on to mention that she can't play it very well, and when it was last tuned. But with these seemingly mundane details, as well as a splendid ear for melody, Olsen builds a heartbreaking storyline. The same honesty is channeled a different way on the devilishly fun "Wish You'd Stop Doing So Well." A jealous Olsen grunts and aches her way through the bluesy folk rattle, kvetching about an ex's success at dieting, dating -- even quitting smoking. It's cutting, funny, and no doubt a surefire crowd-pleaser live. But it's also unflinchingly honest, further defining one of Olsen's greatest traits as a songwriter. Elsewhere, "Look Out" gets metaphysical during a late-night car ride, and "Practicing Walking Away" takes a turn toward smoky vocal jazz. The latter might not work as well, but that's probably only because it sounds so tame next to the sultry blues rip of "Lousy Night for Music," where Olsen lambasts an out of tune bassist and decides to stick her tongue in another bar patron's ear. "I know one way to keep the beat," she sings. It's only one of many things Olsen does well on her assured debut.

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