Now Is the Time
(219records, 2006)

Raised in San Francisco by Austrian parents, Olga -- in the fashion of a roots-music Cher -- goes only by her first name. (Her full name is Olga Wilhelmine Munding-Mathus, for those who want to know.) Backed by her husband Jimbo Mathus (of the Squirrel Nut Zippers) and the Clarksdale Sound Machine, she has released a winning collection of originals and traditionals with a -- broadly speaking -- blues sensibility, with occasional excursions into rock, folk and jazz-pop that never feel jarringly discordant. If Bonnie Raitt hadn't surrendered long ago to the blandishments of Adult Contemporary Radio, and instead stuck closer to where she started, she would probably sound something like this. By which I mean to say, I'd far rather listen to Olga.

Inevitably, with her modestly eclectic approach, I like some songs more than I like others, but I don't dislike anything, either. Her vocal style is all earth and smoke, sultry and sexy but understated about it, a sound that feels born of dirt roads and urban nightclubs alike. None of this is country music, but her "Ain't It a Shame" -- not the 1950s Fats Domino hit -- in another arrangement would do some Nashville act proud.

Her lyrics are ably composed if thematically unadventurous, (by her own testimony) confessional songs about romance's up and downs. Mostly, the downs, which are always more interesting if you're somebody other than the one who's living them. Olga and Jimbo, who produce, set the songs in laid-back electric and acoustic arrangements that manage never to lapse into vapidity.

Here and there interrupting the originals are easygoing readings of roots standards: Memphis Jug Band's "Stealin,'" Memphis Minnie's "What's the Matter with the Mill?" (a duet with Mathus) and a closing piece cryptically titled "GDTRFB," which turns out to be the unmysterious "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad." If not for the ages, they do nicely for the moment.

by Jerome Clark
30 September 2006

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