“At Female Singer-Songwriters Incorporated, we’re aware that you have about a million choices when it comes to ladies with guitars or piano, which is why it’s our goal to only point you towards the best and brightest of the bunch.”
If only such a service existed, it’d make for a much easier time sifting through the massive stockpile of women that rock, from the hardest of the hard to the softest of the soft. So in this era where everybody wants a slice of the pie, how is one to choose the females that stand out from the crowd? A good record label helps, the thought being that if their discerning ears have given a certain artist a thumbs up, they’re at least worth a quick listen. Unless you’re a blogger, you probably aren’t getting the dozen emails each day from ladies that sat down in their bedrooms with an instrument and a microphone hoping their songs would get heard. That’s part of how an artist like tUnE-yArDs was discovered, but it is by no means a guaranteed model for success. The reality of today’s music scene, for any artist looking to make it really, is word of mouth. When considering the women specifically that achieve some form of success, be it Cat Power or Feist, there are key tracks or full records that just stand out from the competition thanks in large part to a publicity machine that moves to the next level with critical acclaim. All that being said, Sharon Van Etten caught a bit of luck on her debut album “Because I Was In Love” last year, earning strong reviews and healthy buzz thanks to a highly expressive singing voice and strong songwriting. She further boosted her cred by getting a coveted invite to this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Armed with just an electric guitar, she had the very first set on the very first day and pulled it off brilliantly, even when her guitar string broke and she didn’t have a spare. That set was also heavy on new material, much of which appears on her just released sophmore album “Epic”.
What’s somewhat amusing about the album title “Epic” is that the music contained within is anything but. Of course compared to Van Etten’s previous album, these new songs are huge. Weighing in at only 7 tracks and with a length of barely over 30 minutes, some EPs have those specs. Ultimately though, if you’re limiting yourself to such a short period of time, two things should come out of it. First, every second should have an explicit and strong purpose. Wasting time on the shortest of short albums is like filling up on bread at a restaurant before the main course arrives. Secondly, with such a concise record it needs to have a good repeat value to the point where you’re left wanting more and the only solution is to start the whole thing over again. Sharon Van Etten might not make the breeziest and most upbeat songs in the world, but her talent oozes all over “Epic” and makes those important factors a priority.
Opening with the acoustic break-up ballad “A Crime”, the immediate impression one might get is that “Epic” will be an effortless sequel to her debut “Because I Was In Love”. The track does have a lot of the elements that make Van Etten great, but what it ultimately lacks are the wonderful things she does with the following six tracks. Once “Peace Sign” arrives with a full band, live drums and a decent-sized hook, it’s almost like the dawning of a new era. It’s an uptempo rock song that’s one of the most compelling things Van Etten has written to date. One of the most remarkable things about the track is how close it comes to spinning off the rails into a full-on jam session but doesn’t quite make it there on purpose. The show of restraint is the lynchpin that strongly contributes to making this song so good. Slide guitar and piano enter the fray for the alt-country cut “Save Yourself”, which contains faint echoes of Neko Case in all the right ways. After the initial verse and chorus pass by, the song moves to the next level by incorporating multi-part harmonies and vocal overdubs that are nothing short of gorgeous. As a mid-album anchor, the 6-minute “Dsharpg” feels mostly like an extended pathway connecting the two halves of the record. It’s not a throwaway track by any means, but it’s primarily a showcase for Van Etten’s awesome vocal power. There are some wavy synths and electronic haze keeping a solid background melody throughout, and the percussion work is limited to a couple sparse tambourine and drum hits. “Don’t Do It” makes a couple minor mistakes mostly in how it’s written and executed. The song feels almost forcibly hook-baited, as the chorus gets repeated over and over and over again across the 5 minutes with wordplay simple enough to stick in your head after the second run-through. Lines like “and you want to do it/if you want to do it/you are going to do it/even if i don’t want you to” come off as kind of uninspired and lazy. Van Etten does her best with it vocally though, and despite the apparent faults it’s tough to be too hard on it. The bright shining moment on the second half of the record lands with the full force of “Love More”. It’s another singing showcase as the track starts off with up-front vocals and wavy synths a la “Dsharpg” earlier in the record. Things slowly build as double and triple harmonies penetrate into the mix, followed shortly thereafter by guitar, bass and drums. Some have said the song has a very Jeff Buckley vibe to it, and that’s by no means a stretch of the truth. There’s not a much better way to close out the album.
So amid the current chart of female singer-songwriters, where does somebody like Sharon Van Etten stand? With “Epic”, she takes a good few steps forward in the direction of future indie star. Her songwriting remains strong for the most part, and strong/emotionally resonant vocals really help to separate her from most of her peers. She’s not quite at a Neko Case or Cat Power-like level of love and respect just yet, but she’s definitely getting closer. The backing of a label like Ba Da Bing has allowed her to flesh out her sound a bit further, incorporating a few more instruments than on her debut. The exploration of these new sounds remains in a largely safe (read: not risky or experimental) area, but no matter how normal-sounding this record might be, it’s anything but thanks to Van Etten’s sharp talent. For those of you looking for a great female singer-songwriter record this year, “Epic” is one of the stronger entries into that ever-expansive canyon. There’s very little reason you shouldn’t pick this album up, in particular because if you’re going digital it’ll only cost you $5 when you factor in the two songs you can download right below for free. The savings, to put it bluntly, are nothing short of epic.