The odd dichotomy that has taken hold in the output of T.G. Olson is that he’s just about completely reliable but you never quite know what you’re going to get. We’re now three years removed from Electric Relics (review here), the last full-length from Olson‘s main outfit, Across Tundras, but in that time the guitarist, vocalist, auteur and DIY packaging specialist has hardly kept still. To wit, he’s put forth no fewer than six solo offerings, including 2013’s The Bad Lands to Cross (discussed here) and Hell’s Half Acre (discussed here), 2014’s The Rough Embrace (review here; vinyl review here), 2015’s The Wandering Protagonist (review here) and The Boom and Bust (discussed here), and 2016’s Quicksilver Sound (discussed here), along with a 2016 Across Tundras EP, Home Free (discussed here).
These all arrived in much the same way as his latest outing, The Broken End of the Deal — via Bandcamp, name-your-price download with a possible follow-up physical pressing on tape, CD or vinyl, usually in a limited, dirt-cheap handcrafted package, tossed into the great digital ether almost completely sans fanfare. Perhaps the underlying truth of Olson‘s work is that he’s too busy writing new releases to promote the ones he’s already finished, but either way, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, by way of Nashville, Tennessee, by way of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native brings out some of his richest and most complex soundscaping on The Broken End of the Deal, effectively marrying two sides of his prior solo material that have grown together over time so that cinematic drone and barebones Americana almost impossibly coexist and flow in parallel across eight tracks/28 minutes that nonetheless keep a strong current of improvisation at their core.
In addition to helming the recording, Olson played all the instruments — some I wouldn’t even guess what they are — on The Broken End of the Deal, and he’s worked in this form enough times by now that it’s clear he knows what he’s going for sound-wise, though his process is still well open enough to let happy accidents happen when they will. Organ adds a gospel inflection to the end of the drone-folk opener “Tough Break” and the following “Hope Slivers,” as well as the closing duo of “Always Turning Away” and “Walk the Lonesome Valley,” and while one doubts that bookend is coincidental, it’s hardly the full tale when it comes to the scope of the album. And at 28 minutes, it is an album. In its construction, flow and ambient depth, The Broken End of the Deal builds a fluid full-length momentum, and though some tracks are barely more than on either side of a minute long, like “Green Sahara” (more organ there as well), the string-infused “Hum” or the aforementioned “Always Turning Away,” they add to what longer pieces like “Tough Break” and eight-minute album highlight “Blisslessness” accomplish in atmosphere and overall breadth.
Tied together by a spirit of persistent twang, Olson‘s vocals, and overriding melancholy, as well as background drones that fill spaces that otherwise might give way to minimalism, The Broken End of the Deal allows its arrangements to wander, “Hope Slivers” blending acoustic and electric guitar, organs, drones, harmonica and voice, as well presumably as two or three other things Olson had in the room at that time. It’s the fact that nothing feels out of place or like it pushes too far that makes the songwriting such a standout. “Green Sahara” gives way to open-country psychedelia, an ethereal pastoralism that one wishes were more than 1:21, but “Blisslessness” hums in on guitar noise and flute and keys, and unfolds a full experimentalist dronescape almost completely departed sonically from “Tough Break” or even “Hope Slivers,” but still of the same spirit and among the most evocative of Olson‘s individual solo pieces.
The transition into “Hum” comes with a fade out and back in, and the briefest cut on The Broken End of the Deal at just 55 seconds long digging quickly into a foreboding swirl before the more immediate guitar/drone/vocal start of “Distilled to Nothing” begins, Olson‘s verse delivered quietly and still with plenty of effects, but nonetheless forward in the mix in a way it isn’t on earlier tracks. Repetitions of the title line, “Distilled down to nothing,” seem to hint at the root message of the record, but that this dirge should come with such a complex wash of sound is a contrast that shouldn’t be overlooked. Olson‘s done barebones before — though written and recorded completely on his own, this isn’t necessarily it. At 1:12, “Always Turning Away” breaks in half and plays out first forward and then apparently again backward as though to underline the experimentalist heart in the work overall, and closer “Walk the Lonesome Valley” brings prominent guitar strums, organ, far-back voice, drone and percussion, which I think might be a first since “Tough Break.”
Like its predecessors, “Walk the Lonesome Valley” is both familiar and captivating in being so out of place in this universe, an oddity that you already seem to know, like when you’re dreaming you have a hole in your head and that’s just always the way life has been. It makes its own sense. I’m not sure I’d call it an apex in the traditional sense, but the soulful kind of falsetto comes to a head later in the track with guitar and organ backing, and the end of The Broken End of the Deal comes with a quick fade, which no doubt is the result of Olson needing to get to work on the next album. All kidding aside, these tracks mark a pivotal next step in continuing to bridge the various facets of Olson‘s songwriting modus, and in so doing prove themselves to be anything but broken. I would not venture to guess what might come next for him as a songwriter, and I don’t think he would either, but whatever it might be, he never fails to move forward with each outing. Reliable, even if you don’t know what you’re going to get.