Review: Dishonorable Harvest by Olivia Awbrey
Written by Nedtilbrook Tilbrook on July 8, 2020
FFO: Frank Turner, Billy Bragg, Courtney Barnett
Olivia Awbrey’s latest album Dishonorable Harvest is a collection of electric protests songs, mixing indie-rock and singer-songwriter sounds, and combining the biting analysis of Billy Bragg with the lyrical dexterity of Courtney Barnett. Each tune is instantly catchy, but a closer examination of the lyrics reveals commentaries on surveillance, global warming, gentrification, and other issues: ‘being involved in many activist circles, the album is for me a personal way to reflect on and tell stories about those moments,’ says Olivia. This is also a distinctly Portland album, with the narratives of some songs taking place at locations within Rose City and highlighting issues facing it.
The album beings with ‘Geolocation at PAM’ – filled with snappy, choppy guitars the song tells a story about surveillance set at the Portland Art Museum. Awbrey’s vocals, optimistic yet portentous throughout, tell of being tracked everywhere, of there being no escape, before breaking into a feverish final verse in which she sings ‘let’s live life on the fringe cause we’re already there.’ Geolocation at PAM is one of Olivia’s personal favorites: “it just tells a good story, and I’m really glad that it opens the album,” she says. Pick the Locks is another number which builds to an exalting crescendo in which the refrain “pick the locks of the internet”, piles on top of soaring guitars, creating a brutally brilliant wave of sound. Along with the following track, Advanced State of Decay, these songs maintain an up-tempo energy while also being desperate and restless, even despairing. The sultry optimism Awbrey manages to capture in her voice is an ever-present and distinguishing feature of the album.
The next track marks a change in tone as ‘Changing Planes’ is an atmospheric, mournful number as Olivia muses on the contradictions in the lifestyles among those of us who profess to care about the environment while electronic sounds burble. “This album has more of an environmental slant because I’ve been thinking about the ways that we inhabit the natural world and how that informs out politics,” Says Olivia. This theme is also expressed in the instrumental title track ‘Dishonorable Harvest’’ which is a solemn section of the album beautifully filled with sombre strings. This is also one of the artist’s favorites: “I really like it because words sometimes words don’t really stack up to whatever you’re feeling or need to express.”
‘Woman in Jeans’ marks a joyously aggressive and defiant turn in the album, starting off jovial before the lines “she decks the halls of patriarchy/ lights it on fire watches it burn/ sees the White House run for safety/ but they’ll never make it out/ when they’re weighed down in all our blood.” ‘Don’t Be Alarmed’ offers further examples of Awbrey’s lyrical skill, capturing the contradictions of trying to maintain a revolutionary consciousness in a world innately hostile to it in just a few words: “My neighbors went to work already/ I thought we decided that was a joke/ wasting our time, wasting our time/ supporting systems born out of crime.” Glimmering guitars and an engrossing instrumental combine with such lyrics to form a beautifully forlon yet balanced song that also discusses climate change and gentrification.
The album’s last song, ‘Pangea Was a Supercontinent’ is a soothing sonorous journey that also retains an edge of exigency. As the music slowly builds in intensity and the sound fills out, adding a soaring guitar line and then a violin, the refrain “we knew what to do/ we knew what to do one time” followed by a whispered “those days are long gone” acts as a graceful summation of the album and a fitting denouement, expressing despair but the knowledge that solutions are available – if only we have the will to hear them. An impeccable listen for our troubled times, Dishonorable Harvest perfectly matches a poetic social commentary to a creative musicality.
Dishonorable Harvest is available now.