REVIEW: David Olney’s “This Side or the Other” is Quality Literary Architecture

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David Olney is simply prolific. As a solo performer Olney has released upwards to thirty albums with something out nearly every year. On the off years he’s made up for the slack with the release of two albums, or a live album, a re-release, or a compilation plus an EP the following year. All of this he’s done with not a word out of place, not a turn of phrase lost of its thoughtful ambiguity or dynamism. David Olney’s sum thirty-odd albums of storytelling have been offered up without judgment or earnest exclusion of any of his devotees. Yes, in thirty albums David Olney has shown us life, but never forced his hand in shaping how we see it.

In this way, Olney has become an archetype of the Americana-Folk Tradition. Building from a stolid base of sound—brooding and self-reflective—he works to filter in textures of emotion, gathering input from well chosen collaborators. Less has always been more.

Like other legends of Americana music, Olney is an architect with words, designing intricate systems of rooms, corridors, and spiral staircases that lead one up into the ethereal lookouts, and down into the basements of humanity. All along, he has allowed his audience to develop their own ideas of what to do, and where to go while inside these built landscapes. His backlog of albums are like well loved dwellings. Places where you are allowed to roam freely and snoop the cupboards without recourse. These albums are made excellent in that many of us are secret voyeurs fiending for a chance to see what is inside the other’s cupboard. We relish the moments when we find ourselves alone within one of his finely crafted, lonesome tunes.

Lately there has been plenty to ruminate on in regards to whom we perceive as being the Other and whether or not we care to investigate his or her many rooms. Yes, there is a lot of public discourse concerning the themes that are broached in the latest of David Olney’s albums, This Side Or The Other, out today.

Recorded and mixed by Steve Dawson at The Henhouse Studio in Nashville, This Side Or The Other may not be a concept album, but there is a literary quality, a certain flow to each song’s narrative, which digs into the current social climate and offers up a no-nonsense look at the walls that we have built up around ourselves. “We try to live in black and white and end up living in a world of grey,” states Olney in his ruminations over the song, “I Spy”, his fourth track on the album, featuring vocals by Anne McCue. Evoking the childhood game, the essence of this song elicits this dual nature of truth, forefront in the media today.

From Olney’s extensive body of work, one thing is clear—everything he does is intentional. This Side Or The Other is no exception. The curation is plain for the keen, long-standing fan, as more than one song is a thoughtful re-recording from a past album, folded in neatly among the new songs with an effect that nods to the many years that these topics have been relevant.

Take for instance the third track “Border Town”, which has been pulled from his 1997 “Real Lies” live album, recorded this time with the haunting, prophetic backing vocals of The McCrary Sisters. Or, “Running From Love”, from his 2004 album “Illegal Cargo”. In this latest recording Olney bolsters the stripped down acoustics of the original track and deeply darkens the vibe with matted electric guitar (Steve Dawson), ghostly harmonica (Charlie McCoy), a pensive percussion section (Justin Amaral), and a celestial fiddle adagio (Ward Stout). The impact, a noir romanticism that is equal parts seductive and terrifying. You can feel the journey that these songs have been on. Time has not eroded their sharp edges, but in this case, only made these songs all the more compulsory.

Then there is the long awaited recording of “Stand Tall”, which makes its debut as the penultimate song, just before Olney’s swamp pop cover of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There”. Though this is the seeming opus of the album it begins with a near reluctance from its composer. “I’ve been working on this song, on and off, for 25 years.” says Olney.

Twenty-five years! And the stewing over the song’s release is audibly palpable with the intro: “One, two, yeah, yeah….”, as if Olney is hesitant to develop a theme that is so exacting and straightforward: “Here they teach you while you’re young, there’s a price you have to pay for being free.”

There is little that is grey in this song. Olney is explicit, showing his support to the many worlds that are at play around him. In ”Stand Tall” he exposes his own fleshy cupboard. He is empathetic and even melancholy as he reaches out, “to each and every migrant soul who labors in far and distant fields,”—”to everyone gone underground / beneath the Earth and rock / deep in the mine.”—“to every kind and precious heart, brave enough to wish upon a star.”—and—“to all the wandering troubadours”. To them all, he offers advice from his many years in service to his own calling, “Keep it on the road and play it right”.

This Side Or The Other dances around topics of immigration, the building and destruction of walls, and the dual nature of being someone who exists both in and outside of the casual and safe realities that many of us take for granted. There is a lesson bound up in all of it, but in true Olney fashion the take-away is not handed out passively.

With equal parts stoicism and yield, This Side Or The Other is a slow burn stoked by decades of watching, writing and waiting for just the right time to flame. With this release, David Olney has again opened up his internal dwelling and granted us permission to peek about inside.

Find the full album on David Olney’s website, here.

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