T.G. Olson, Searching for the Ur-Plant: Solitary Brigade

tg olson searching for the ur-plant

T.G. Olson is rarely far off from his next release. At this point, the Across Tundras frontman has settled into a steady rhythm where every few months, new songs will be recorded and presented for those who’ll have them as name-your-price downloads on Bandcamp. Sometimes — as in the case of his latest, Searching for the Ur-Plant — these DIY digital offerings will be complemented by limited, usually gorgeous and suitably organic-looking handmade CDRs pressed through the auspices of Olson‘s Electric Relics Records imprint. Sometimes not. Either way, the next thing always seems to be on the horizon. This has led to a remarkably productive few years and an increasingly complex narrative as to just what Olson‘s solo work encompasses in terms of style and craft.

Searching for the Ur-Plant was preceded this Spring by the full-length Foothills Before the Mountain (review here), which in turn followed a busy 2016 that produced La Violenza Naturale (review here), the From the Rocky Peaks b/w Servant to Blues single (discussed here) and the albums The Broken End of the Deal (review here) and Quicksilver Sound (discussed here), and the newer work follows a path distinct from its most immediate predecessor in a way that makes it more difficult to guess what Olson‘s next move might be. Other, of course, than (presumably) putting out another record. Because that’s kind of how he does. The question is how that record will be defined, and the reason that’s harder to determine as a result of the eight-song Searching for the Ur-Plant is because how much it strips down the approach taken on Foothills Before the Mountain.

On sheer sonic terms, the drone-folk arrangements of cuts like opener “On a High Like a Mountain” or the later “New Resistance Blues” aren’t necessarily new ground for Olson, but they represent a turn from what seemed to be more full-band-style fare his last time out toward a more distinctly “solo” feel. The story goes that the material was “handmade from scratch during one rainy week in October 2017. All songs were written new on the spot and recorded one by one until 33:32 minutes had been laid to bare to tape,” and having been completed on Oct. 11, Searching for the Ur-Plant found issue three days later: written, performed, recorded, produced, mixed, mastered and pressed by Olson himself.

At its most minimal, as on “Time Flies By and By,” the album carries that insular feel, but there’s also a good bit of reaching out done in these tracks, which from the early Paul Simon-style bounce of “The Old Brigade” to the later handclaps of the penultimate “Back on the Cross” seem to be in conversation with the human interaction at the root of Americana and folk traditionalism — the idea that songs were meant to be shared, sung by groups together, and so on.

t.g. olson

A big difference is in percussion and the general lack thereof, and where Foothills Before the Mountain was less shy about including drums, those handclaps in “Back on the Cross” are about it as far as outward timekeeping goes. Elsewhere, the key seems to be in call and response vocals — a theme “On a High Like a Mountain” sets early and which continues through the repetition-minded, harmonica-laced “A Constant Companion,” “Time Flies By and By,” “The Old Brigade,” “Trying to Take it All In,” “New Resistance Blues,” and closer “The Ur-Plant” itself — Olson answering his vocal lines in delayed time over acoustic and electric guitar that free-flows between drift and ramble, wistful and playful.

Given the timeline in which Searching for the Ur-Plant was put together — written and tracked in the span of a week — that such consistencies would develop makes sense. Sometimes an idea just gets stuck in your head and needs to be exorcised, and despite that steady element, the songs remain varied in their intent, whether it’s the classic melancholy of “A Constant Companion” with its echoes of airy slide guitar or the soft and swaying guitar and harmonica execution of “The Ur-Plant,” which rounds out in less chorus-focused fashion than cuts like “On a High Like a Mountain” or “The Old Brigade,” but with an absolute center based in the realization of its pastoralia, humble even as it brims with creativity and understated nuance. This too is familiar ground from Olson, but brought to bear with a fascinating patience that would seem to fly in the face of the urgency with which Searching for the Ur-Plant was written and constructed.

It would’ve been easy, in other words, for Olson to come across as rushed on a record that took a week to make. But he doesn’t. Instead, he harvests an eight-song/33-minute collection that sidesteps expectation while remaining quintessentially his in terms of atmosphere and overarching style, which is a balance that, so well struck as it is, defines Searching for the Ur-Plant and serves as the basis for its ultimate success. In intent and manifestation, Olson‘s work would struggle to be any less pretentious than it is, but it remains propelled by a fierce and apparently unyielding creativity, and though this particular outing makes it harder to imagine where Olson might go next — whereas after Foothills Before the Mountain he seemed so primed to continue working toward one-man-band-style arrangements — that unpredictability, met head-on by such depth of songwriting, only becomes yet another asset working in Olson‘s favor.

The discography he’s built at this point is something truly special, and whether one meanders through it as through tall, pathless grasses, or follows step by step as each installment arrives, journey and destination alike seem to satisfy with a warmth all their own. Searching for the Ur-Plant winds up in a lonelier place than some of Olson‘s other offerings, but its sense of longing is resonant, beautiful, and honest. Clearly the search continues.

T.G. Olson, Searching for the Ur-Plant (2017)

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