by Alli Marshall and Jordan Lawrence
Two indie-folk acts find their place and sound in Asheville
Warm the Bell and Angel Olsen are slated to play The Grey Eagle this week, on Friday, May 16, and Saturday, May 17, respectively. While both acts share a folk aesthetic, they approach music (and recording, and live shows) from very different perspectives.
Plenty of bands have formed from the ashes of other projects. Ben Bridwell launched Band of Horses after the dissolution of Carissa’s Wierd; following the death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, the remaining members started New Order; and rock supergroup Velvet Revolver is populated by former Guns N Roses musicians. Asheville indie-folk outfit Warm the Bell (which plays The Grey Eagle on Friday, May 16) shares that story.
Sean Robbins and Vickie Burick had both played in country-tinged indie-rock band Nevada. When that group fizzled out, the singer-songwriter/guitarists teamed up. “We started working on some new songs that were more folk-oriented,” says Robbins. “Some of the songs had been for Nevada, but they didn’t really fit.”
Though a band — if tentatively at first — since 2010, it was only last year that Warm the Bell released its debut, You Are the Sun. Jangly, sunny and bittersweetly nostalgic, the record matches ’60s-era folk with indie-rock savvy. “That’s definitely our sound. It wasn’t planned or anything,” says Robbins. “It’s a lot of the stuff I’ve been listening to forever.”
A new album is in the works. Robbins and Burick have written more than 20 songs for that project, plus there are the tracks they didn’t end up using on You Are the Sun. Their decision process is this: “We pick the ones we like the best and see how they turn out in the studio,” says Robbins.
While the new record will be stylistically similar to the band’s debut, expect some darker moods and political themes. Robbins is also going for a more stripped-down approach and a sound that’s “’60s psychedelic crossed with old-time.” Ultimately, the musician likes to make the sort of music he’d want to listen to, from ’70s soft rock, to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, to space rockers Spiritualized. “We still have some of the loud, psychedelic freak-out songs we’ve been doing too,” he promises.
Sonic changes can be attributed to a lineup shift. Warm the Bell’s drummer Rick Shore (also of Nevada) left the band, so bassist Sam Brinkley (of Rafe Hollister) took over percussion. “Rick had a hard-rock, Jimmy Chamberlin from Smashing Pumpkins style,” Robins says. “Sam’s style is unique, more on the folk-rock side.” New bassist Tim Comstock plays standup, which further influences the aesthetic.
Warm the Bell finds itself in an interesting place among local acts. The band tends to take winters off, and Robbins admits to enjoying the recording process more than the live show experience. (Burick, on the other hand, looks forward to the social aspect of gigs.) But both Robbins and Burick have been part of Asheville’s music scene for more than a decade. And, while Robbins previously lived in the Triangle area — known for its many bands — the group he shared with his younger brother played most of its shows in Asheville with older sibling Wayne Robbins, frontman of The Hellsayers.
“There are so many great bands in town that it’s easy for a band to get lost,” Sean says of Asheville. He’s happy to find his way back to The Grey Eagle, a sort of home away from home for him and Burick — a stage they shared with some beloved local acts. “One of the songs we’re playing in Warm the Bell, and will be playing at The Grey Eagle,” he says, “is a song we played there, years ago, at a show with The Hellsayers and DrugMoney.” — A.M.
Warm the Bell with Red Honey and Desperate Pilot
The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
Friday, May 16, at 9 p.m. $5 advance/$8 day of show
New Sound, New Town
Burn Your Fire for No Witness, the new offering from timelessly warbling folksinger Angel Olsen, kicks off with one hell of a bait-and-switch. “Unf**ktheworld” opens the record with broken-down lo-fi balladry, her plaintive strums and wounded croon crackling through comfortable static. Crisply recorded harmonies emerge after the halfway mark, fostering magnificent tension, a powder keg that’s blown wide by the grimey electric riff that announces “Forgiven/Forgotten,” a lean and infectious garage rock stunner that’s unlike anything Olsen has previously attempted.
It’s a big shift, a confident move into unfamiliar sonic territory — and it’s far from the only change to come the singer’s way. In the two years since releasing her critically lauded second album, Half Way Home, Olsen has enlisted a band, touring and writing for the first time with a steady cast of collaborators. She met them in Chicago, her home for most of the past eight years, but she now resides in Asheville, having moved to town last October.
Many people might be staggered by so much change in such a short period, but when reached in the midst of her current tour, Olsen is relaxed, laughing off persistent phone difficulties as she and her band plow through the mountains on their way to Atlanta.
“I guess I felt like I was fitting pretty easily into a community,” she says, explaining that she picked her new home after playing in the area and tracking Burn at Echo Mountain Recording Studio. “A lot of friends of mine play softball, so I would go see softball games and meet a lot of people there and afterwards go to Desoto [Lounge] or The Double Crown or some place like that on Haywood [Road] and hang. It’s just been a really natural progression. Before I moved here, I knew there were other bands and other things happening in Asheville.”
Olsen arrives in North Carolina with big things happening in her own career. Bolstered by near universal acclaim, Burn has grabbed the singer her widest audience to date, keeping her on the road for most of the spring. The album broadens her appeal without forsaking the haunting intimacy that made her early recordings so powerful. Songs like “Iota” move with the same understated amble that dominated Half Way Home, allowing Olsen to shine like an old-school country star while offering lines that pierce like knives — “If only we grew wiser with each breath/ If only we could dance our way to death.”
The new sounds prove that her hypnotic croon can work in different contexts. “Hi-Five” gives classic honky-tonk a garage-punk makeover, with sprightly piano ably diffusing a monstrously crunchy main riff. The words find Olsen in her most feisty form, sprinkling her lovelorn narrative with appropriately bleak humor: “I feel so lonesome, I could cry,” she coos, referencing Hank Williams’ ubiquitous country standard, “But instead I’ll pass the time/ Sitting lonely with somebody lonely too.”
“I feel a little bit more comfortable putting melodies in there, opening the songs up for music to happen,” Olsen says. “When I would perform solo and write for just a solo performance, there would be singing all the way through. Now, I feel very excited to play music and not always sing.”
But don’t expect her to start writing straightforward rock songs. Just as moving to Asheville expanded her community of friends, she hopes her new tools will continue opening up more moods for her to explore.
“I don’t necessarily want the opportunity to write simply,” Olsen concludes, “but instead to continue writing with the same style.” — J.L.
Angel Olsen with Promised Land Sound
The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
Saturday, May 17, at 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show