Graded on a Curve:
Olivia Awbrey,
Dishonorable Harvest

Based in Portland, OR but with time spent in England, Olivia Awbrey writes the songs and sings them on her debut full-length. Just as importantly, she invigorates her tunes with tough guitar playing and enlists a tight crew (including Jen Macro of My Bloody Valentine) to infuse the whole with heft and depth, so that instead of just another indie strum scenario, a tangle of influences productively shine through. Dishonorable Harvest is out May 1 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the Quick Pickle label.

Checking out Olivia Aubrey’s first release, the 7-song “Fight or Fight” EP from 2017 (still available on CD), does present something of a strum scenario in its opening title track, though it’s more classically folk-poppy than indie and likeable at that. Following it is a tight dose of up-tempo melodic-rock, with the rest of the set highlighting Awbrey’s budding strengths as a singer-songwriter.

Extending from its first cut, the EP’s an enjoyable listen, but “Geolocation at P.A.M.,” the opening song on her follow-up Dishonorable Harvest, delivers a power move of considerable proportions and sets into motion a long-player that, while solid, still registers as an effort of promise rather than a document of fulfilled potential. Furthermore, the track’s title refers to the Portland Art Museum, the connection revealed in lyrics that dive into (seemingly) autobiographical realms infused with rocking loudness situating Awbrey as a descendant of Patti Smith.

She’s not swiping Smith’s moves though. In her website bio, Awbrey describes her songs as offering a “self-interrogation of her place in the world as a queer woman,” and it’s a self-assessment that shines through in the hearing. Additionally, on an instrumental level, the song’s heaviness feels connected to more recent Alt-indie developments, the bio further detailing how Awbrey met and spent time with one of her inspirations, the English songwriter CJ Thorpe-Tracey, who along with Jen Marco, contributes to Dishonorable Harvest.

“Pick the Locks” extends the welcome rocking quality, with gnarls of guitar that had me thinking a little of Sonic Youth in their more straightforward later moments. Awbrey’s vocals ride the tide with confidence as the choruses take a distinct pop-rock turn. Notably, Awbrey’s lyrics reference the internet, news feeds, and the turning off of phones, but without feeling like she’s straining for topicality.

This is in part due to experience in addressing contemporary subjects, as heard on the EP. The toughness continues in “Advanced State of Decay,” though the singer-songwriter side of her approach does get asserted along with a passing similarity to Courtney Barnett. Altogether, it’s an early standout signaling a shift of gears into the more contemplative “Changing Planes,” where her songwriting is deepened with layered sonic atmospherics and a nice tail-end guitar solo.

Featuring cello, violin, and piano, the instrumental title track is an even bigger departure and an engaging one that reinforces Awbrey as a still blossoming talent. However, the cut does set into motion the more reflective side of her sensibility as expressed in “Is Anyone Left.” I was considering using the descriptor restrained for the song, but the reality is that she really hits an apex of emotion in the singing that further illuminates her growth since 2017.

The foundational soundscapes and programmed beats of “I Thought It Was You” situate it stylistically closer to “Changing Planes.” The two tracks share a guitar component, though in “I Thought It Was You” the instrument weaves into the overall ambiance as things spread out a bit. It brings another redirect, this time into crisp pop-rock, “Woman in Jeans” augmented with piano and her most cutting lyrics, and not just the “motherfucker”’s spiked very nicely with a backing vocal echo in the choruses.

Penultimate track “Don’t Be Alarmed” retains the catchiness (complete with a na-na-na-na group backing vocal) but there’s also those guitars ringing out loudly while not overtaking the melody, a maneuver which brings to mind the indie pop ’90s. It sets up finale, “Pangaea Was a Supercontinent,” which ties up the assorted elements mentioned above; the rocking (an attractive build-up across a slower tempo), the strong singing and lyrics, interweaved backing vocal motifs, the cello coming in late, and that punk influence felt rather that explicitly applied.

It completes an LP that, as outlined above, satisfies while suggesting that the best may be yet to come for Olivia Awbrey. That may seem a nice way of saying that Dishonorable Harvest isn’t quite top-tier, but I prefer to emphasize that hitting this spot in a debut full-length is its own special achievement, so if her style reads as appealing it wouldn’t hurt to get on the train now rather than chase the caboose later.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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