Olivia Jean: Lana Del Rey's worst nightmare
On their initial flurry of singles for Jack White’s Third Man Records, and even more so on their eponymous album in 2011, the all-female “garage-goth” band the Black Belles amply delivered on the promise of that self-invented genre description with a ferocious snarl, an abundance of attitude, plenty of dark atmosphere, and a healthy dose of humor (and I lauded them for all of the above on this episode of Sound Opinions). But even as a smitten fan, I wasn’t quite prepared for the joys of Bathtub Love Killings, the solo debut by the Black Belles’ multi-instrumentalist Olivia Jean.
Rivaling any death metal band for her obsession with horror and the macabre—the album title was inspired by a serial killer from the 1800s who slayed three women in their bathtubs, and song titles include “Merry Widow,” “Deadly Hex,” and “Green Honeycreeper”—Olivia Jean keeps things balanced with an Elvira-like fondness for kitschy/goofy humor and an aesthetic that might be described as early ’60s girl group gone very, very bad. But all of that is window dressing that would hardly matter a whit if she wasn’t also an incredibly versatile and virtuosic musician able to play any instrument she picks up, further strengthened by an encyclopedic knowledge of music (heavy on the best of rootsy Americana and genuine country). Meanwhile, as a songwriter, she has unerring ear for crafting memorable hooks and deftly blurring genre lines, making her songs sound instantly familiar—though you never can quite figure out exactly why, much less who exactly they remind you of.
Given the way she plays with pre-Beatles pop images, as well as how she relies on sultry delivery and plenty of attitude much more than on a perfect-pitch voice, the comparison between Olivia Jean and Lana Del Rey is inevitable. But as I made abundantly clear in my reviews of Born to Die and Ultraviolence, Lana’s bad girl posing is seriously undercut by her willingness to pander to the bad boys (possibly to the point of self-abuse), while Olivia isn’t playing anyone’s game but her own, much less serving as anyone’s doormat. This is what makes her a true child of Wanda Jackson, one of the many artists she’s backed as part of the Third Man family and house band, and more power to her.
Olivia Jean, Bathtub Love Killings (Third Man Records)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.