Detroit-born Olivia Jean started her music career by handing out demos at shows. In the city’s flourishing garage rock scene, she caught the attention of Jack White and signed to his label Third Man Records as the guitarist for The Black Belles in 2009. White wanted an all-female rock band on Third Man and brought the group together. The band saw reasonable success until 2012 when the band went on hiatus, and Olivia Jean began her solo career. Her first album Bathtub Love Killings had a more pop-oriented take on the garage rock sound of The Black Belles. Jean played every instrument on the record, cementing her status as a talented multi-instrumentalist and writer. Her 2019 release Night Owl sees Jean sharpening her songwriting skills, introducing a full backing band, and stepping behind the production board.
Jean commands a surf punk sound with her riffs, melodies, and vocal delivery reminiscent of 1950s garage bands. Her voice is not powerful, but charismatic, sounding at turns like Cherrie Currie or Madonna. Almost all the songs on Night Owl feature and end with a guitar solo, but the execution and playing keeps it from sounding monotonous. Each one of the album’s fourteen tracks features a variety of guitar sounds and styles while also having a coherent, genre-abiding sound.
The title track opens with a riff so bright it dips into pop punk. The melody is catchy without being predictable; the transition from the second verse to chorus is a striking redirection. Highlight track “Perfume” includes a sludgy, abrasive start and breezy folk verses that show off the personality and verve in Jean’s voice. The instrumental closing track “Tsunami Sue” is the most energizing of the bunch. Colorful surf riffs boil under the sound of a storm rolling in and soaring backing vocals. The arrangement treats the lead guitar like a lead vocalist. “Siren Call” features Jean’s strongest singing, with haunting “aahs” and ear-grabbing lyrics like “Fresh meat in town and we want it right now.” The organ keyboard in the outro adds a unique texture to the album that is otherwise scarce.
Thanks to her talent and ear for rock arrangements, two highlight tracks are covers. Her cover of Flamin’ Groovies’ “Bushfire” features a light lead vocal, adorning back-up vocals, and dual guitar solos in the song’s climax. Having the guitar mixed to the front showcases the song’s complex chord progression and an assortment of tones. Her cover of the surf Bollywood classic “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” is rollicking and urgent while retaining a sense of order. Jean’s vocals fit this song as well as if she wrote it.
Olivia Jean’s 37-minute sophomore album isn’t genre-redefining or game-changing, but is a formidable contribution to the modern rock and roll scene and to Third Man Records. The songs don’t always stick on the first listen, but they are all technically impressive and fun. It fulfills the expectations of its genre by sounding best played loud.