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Music Review

Angel Olsen’s intensity never wavers

Zia Anger

CAMBRIDGE — Angel Olsen has one of the most intense stares you’re likely to witness in indie rock. There is nothing coy or precious about the songs she writes and sings about the numerous ways a heart can break. She lays everything bare and then looks dead into the crowd — and I swear she never blinks — to see what you think of it. Her performances are a two-way street.

When she arrived at the Sinclair on Friday night, to a sold-out audience, she brought a three-piece band that fleshed out the songs from her new album, “Burn Your Fire for No Witness.” Her debut for the venerable indie label Jagjaguwar, it’s a beguiling mix of fuzzed-out rock songs and dissonant folk dirges straight from the Leonard Cohen canon. “And if you should touch me/ Know that I’m made/ That I’m made of fire,” she sang on “Drunk and With Dreams,” an older song that suggested she has been an unflinching songwriter from the beginning.

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“Hi-Five” took a familiar refrain — a riff on Hank Williams’s “I’m so lonesome I could cry” – and spun it into a deliciously deadpan kiss-off. “Are you lonely, too?” she asked seductively on the chorus, before rubbing salt in the wound. “High five!/ So am I.”

Tension is at the core of Olsen’s work, specifically the tautness between her vocals and how they weave in and out of the instrumentation. She locked into such a steely groove with her bandmates that some of her slower material seemed out of step with the performance, at least to her. Barely a verse into “Miranda,” she stopped and decided it didn’t feel right and moved on to the harder edge of “Stars.”

The truth is, Olsen’s downtempo songs are just as harrowing as the rockers, if not more. “Acrobat” had the elasticity and flow of the title’s subject matter, a hypnotic showcase for the strange ways in which Olsen uses her voice — soaring and caressing, beautiful and brittle. You could get lost in that song.

Olsen went solo for the encore with just her electric guitar and went right for the jugular on “Enemy”:

I want the best for you

So I won’t look your way

Maybe the clouds will clear

And I’ll be seeing you someday

Within a half-second of finishing, she confessed it was “weird” to perform that one. It was an abrupt way to end the song, akin to yanking back the curtains, but it also felt necessary: After revealing so much of herself, it’s no wonder she wanted to reclaim a small piece of it.

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJames
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