Alix Olson,
Independence Meal
(Subtle Sister, 2003)

Alix Olson treads a path blazed by Ani DiFranco on Independence Meal. Those familiar with DiFranco's work will recognize the in-your-face political consciousness, feminist ideals and apparent stream-of-consciousness rants that end up being interconnected webs of disparate yet related subjects. Olson is by turns thoughtful, observant, vengeful, passionate and iconoclastic, sometimes spitting out her words so fast the listener is challenged to keep up with her. Olson has issued a book version of the poems on her first album, Built Like This; one can hope she will do the same for Independence Meal as well.

Unlike DiFranco, Olson has made her reputation on the poetry slam circuit rather than in musical circles. That said, she is assisted on this CD by Pamela Means (guitar), Ubaka Hill (percussion) and Lyndell Montgomery of Ember Swift (violin), among others. The musicans, along with well-chosen samples, create a background that does not detract from Olson's words but adds texture to the pieces.

Those who don't like overt politics in their listening matter will be put off by Independence Meal. Those who are willing to listen, however, will find an angry and articulate voice cataloguing the injustices of American society. "Pirates" accuses the government and media of stealing the truth from the people and exhorts listeners to steal the truth back; samples of political thinker Howard Zinn reinforce the message. The title cut is a very effective meditation on what freedom really means in America when so many black men end up in jail. "Dorothea Tanning" is a very New York-centered piece as it moves from the museum that houses Tanning's painting to the experiences of friends caught up in the chaos of 9/11. "Womyn Before" pays tribute to women who have gone before her, both historical figures and the women in Olson's own family. A hidden track envisions a feminist revolution.

Although there are times when Olson shouts slogans or hits the obvious hot-button issues, much of the time her poems meander through the different images summoned up by the subject. "Independence Meal" considers the legacy of slavery, the apparent "freedom" of the homeless from the material burdens of the privileged, the Fourth of July and incarceration, while rolling it up in a portrait of homeless men waiting for a meal at a soup kitchen. Here, she takes a problem that we all know exists and puts thoughts about the problem together in an unusual way. Means' guitar adds a hint of fragility to the poem, then turns urgent. Another excellent poem is "Wholly Human," where Olson carves out a definition of religion that turns its back on organized faith but acknowledges spirituality. As she performs, she sounds like a close friend spilling her thoughts, each thought leading to another idea like a bridge. Montgomery's violin adds a down-home feel to this track and a sampled radio preacher's exhortations fall on deaf ears.

Every poet has her own batch of love poems and Olson is no exception. The best is "8x10," an achingly bittersweet reflection on a broken relationship. "Unsteady Things" piles images on top of each other as it constructs a complicated portrait of two people. "Subway Lips" is drunk on words with its rapid-fire delivery; it makes the listener want to see Olson live.

Without anything like a lyric sheet, the listener is buoyed along on the sweeping waves of words. Repeated spins of the CD are necessary to pick out all the words. Deft lines flash by and are gone before memory can seize them. Sometimes Olson's pieces meander a little too long, or rest with easy indictments of the government and big business. But at her best, Olson is aware that injustice is rife, the world is complicated and we're all stuck in this life together.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 8 May 2004

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