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Album Review: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp [Jagjaguwar]

The first time I saw and heard Sharon Van Etten was at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, in which she had the “honor” of being the first artist to perform that year. The issue of course is that at 3PM on a Friday afternoon, most attendees were either still at work or simply hadn’t made their way past the front gates yet. In other words, it made for one of the most sparsely attended sets of the weekend. Those that were there in time though were treated to one of the most endearing sets of the 3-day fest and a proper introduction to a major new singer-songwriter talent. Her first proper album Epic had not yet been released, and she had no backing band, so the reality of it was one woman playing a bunch of songs nobody had heard before to a crowd of about 100 people. And you know what? You could barely hear a sound other than what was coming out of the speakers. That’s not because they were loud, but because everyone was quiet and attentive and completely taken in by a truly lone wolf performance. In the middle of it, one of the strings on her guitar broke, and she didn’t have a replacement, so Modest Mouse (headlining that night) lent her one of theirs. Effortlessly charming was a good way to describe it, and in some ways that set suggested the birth of a star. Epic would go on to critical praise and moderate success, and Van Etten made a whole lot of important friends thanks in no small part to incessant touring.

The National’s Aaron Dessner was one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest supporters, and was so swayed by the Epic track “Love More” that he performed a cover of it at the 2010 MusicNow Festival with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That developed into a friendship and a working collaboration, as Dessner produced Van Etten’s new record Tramp. The recording sessions were sporadic over a year, scheduled between touring responsibilities for the both of them. Van Etten also found herself courted by a record label or two, eventually choosing to sign with indie superlabel Jagjaguwar, which is a strong match to her style of music and increased visibility. She chose to title her new album Tramp as a comment on the transient lifestyle she’s been leading the last couple years. Touring is one aspect of it, but she’s also not had a permanent residence in awhile, instead bouncing from couch to couch, friend to friend and sublet to sublet when she needs to stay anywhere for longer than a day or two. As she puts it, the decision ultimately came down to either paying rent on an apartment, or keeping her backing band. Things have been better in recent months however, and she’s been able to find a place in Brooklyn to call home even as she prepares to hit the road for another few months of touring in support of the album.

Things are also getting better on record as well, as Tramp sees Van Etten truly growing out her voice and overall sound into a much stronger and more collaborative effort overall. For the first time, she truly sounds comfortable in her own skin, as if she just needed the right people around her to get all the pieces perfectly in place. She’s been building towards such a sonic revelation across her previous two releases, and now that she’s finally reached that healthy place seems more determined than ever to make it count for something. Opening track “Warsaw” holds a remarkably dark bounce to it, the main electric guitar chords bearing a surprisingly strong resemblance to some of the more angular approaches used by Nirvana in reworking some of their songs for the Unplugged record. Perhaps the song that best echoes Van Etten’s growth is first single “Serpents”, which is a beast of a composition that intertwines multiple guitar parts, militaristic drumming from Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and full-on overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s beautiful and sad, but has serious muscle to it, a display of aggression that was only been hinted at up until that point. Not everything on the album is so intricately constructed and energetic though. The balladry of “Kevin’s” comes soberingly close to the sparse solo guitar and vocal of Van Etten’s earlier material, as does the late album drama of “Ask”. Other songs like “All I Can” and “I’m Wrong” take a more subtle approach and build steadily over their duration. The bright energy and use of ukulele on “Leonard” brings a decidedly Beirut-esque feel to the track, and it’s almost a disappointment when a horn section doesn’t emerge to buttress the melody. But speaking of Beirut, Zach Condon does make a guest appearance on the equally ukulele driven “We Are Fine”, a song about overcoming social anxiety. The track’s positive message is that much more engaging and beautiful thanks to Condon’s backing harmonies and solo vocal on a verse. Additional contributions come from Julianna Barwick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others, and each does a superb job whether you notice their presence or not.

At the core of Tramp are Van Etten’s lyrics, the topics of which haven’t really changed much since her earliest days. Romance tends to be her favorite vice, and the highs and mostly lows of relationships is something she continues to explore. On “Give Out” she bluntly sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/or why I’ll need to leave.” Yet sometimes she takes the blame for a failed relationship herself, as on “Leonard” when she musters up the courage to say, “I am bad at loving you.” One thing you’re almost guaranteed with any Sharon Van Etten record is that she’ll be very frank and up front about her thoughts and emotions. It’s just nice at times to not have to wade through symbols and extraneous wordplay while trying to decipher the songwriter’s true intentions. And Sad though many of the sentiments might be, often made sadder by the heartbreak evident in Van Etten’s voice, this album isn’t about the destruction of relationships. It’s actually about the lessons we learn in the aftermath of those tragic moments. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she confesses on “All I Can”, the implication being that the wounds of past loves will hopefully assist in finding someone new and better. Couple that with a song like “We Are Fine” and the theme becomes moving on and forward. Funny, because Van Etten is not only doing that lyrically but sonically as well, and the combination makes for her finest record to date. She’s come quite a long way from just a couple years ago playing unreleased music all alone on a festival stage. To say she’s earned the success that continues to come her way would be quite an understatement.

Sharon Van Etten – Serpents

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Album Review: Wye Oak – Civilian [Merge]

Wye Oak is a band that has been teetering on the brink of indie stardom for a few years now. Their debut record “If Children” established the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack as both deep and dark thinkers, crafting sublime folk melodies with extreme splashes of loud electric guitar violence and shoegaze tropes. It all feels really organic and heavy too, refusing to succumb to anybody’s common labels of a cutesy male-female band that does a lot of love and relationship stuff. This isn’t Mates of State, nor is it the blues-inflected rock of The White Stripes. If Wye Oak has earned an extremely high number of comparisons to Beach House, it’s because of the aforementioned duo thing, and also Wasner’s voice has a deeper, smoky vibe that Victoria Legrand’s also espouses. The overall sounds are relatively similar as well, in that both Beach House and Wye Oak make subtle, dream-infused pop music, though Wye Oak most definitely goes darker and louder. The internet has been kind to Wye Oak for the most part, helping to generate a fair amount of hype for their two albums to date. Touring around a bit with The Decemberists also helped them out a bit, scoring them new fans and shoving new ideas into their heads. So after several months of writing and recording after putting out a pretty smart EP last year, Wye Oak returns for their third full length “Civilian”.

“Civilian” opens with crowd noise – lots of people having multiple conversations in a large room. It’s the sort of thing that happens at a concert venue between bands, where there’s a lot of voices but you can’t really make out what any single one of them is saying because it’s all just collected cacophony. But as the crowd dies down, the first notes of “Two Small Deaths” creep in – some held down keyboards and other electronic elements that rise together like a collective symphony of indistinct loudness; a parallel to the crowd noise that came just before it. The that shimmering quickly fades to unveil a carefully plucked deep electric guitar melody along with some nicely paced taps on the drum rim. It’s all pretty signature for Wye Oak, that is until the chorus strikes. Wasner’s vocals get doubled over into harmonies, some cymbals and other bits enter the melody, which surges forth with color and life in spite of the grim subject matter. Bits of descending keyboards flutter around the second verse and continue to hold the discreet and subdued charm of the track, which legitimately begins to feel like the auditory approximation of small streams of sunlight rising from the horizon at the start of a day. The song is just the start of something new for Wye Oak – music that bears all of their familiar marks, yet pushes beyond the traditional darkness of their arrangements towards something more vibrant and fascinating.

One of Wye Oak’s vices has always been and continues to be the stasis created by a singular guitar riff or melody. They always choose interesting chords or progressions, but there’s very little deviation once they settle into a certain groove. When it falls flat, as it has on numerous occasions, it becomes easy to get bored and want to move on to something else. “Civilian” holds to the same pattern, but with a few more sidetracks to keep you guessing. “The Altar” works pretty well thanks to that mentality. A flurry of a guitar solo competing with some smooth bass lines and swirls of electronic noise all meet in the middle of the track just after Wasner’s vocals soar while getting buried in a pile of static. Speaking of which, the noise ratchets up significantly on “Holy Holy”, with the electric guitars working up into a fuzz-filled 70’s garage fury and Wasner pushing herself to compete behind the microphone. It makes for one of the most thrilling and legitimately fun rock songs on the entire record. “Dog Eyes” definitely tries something different by attempting to balance what feels like two different personalities across a single track. The song moves from a delicately plucked and relatively quiet verse into a very loud power chorded instrumental section before working the quiet-loud dichotomy one more time, with the final minute completely laying waste to everything that came before it. There’s something inherently impressive about it, but the transitions within the song are a bit jarring and there’s very little structure to the track on the whole, which is a problem. Better laid out is the title track, settling into a nice guitar and organ piece while getting progressively louder into a pretty fierce guitar solo at the coda.

The second half of the album can pretty much be classified as more of the same things established in the first half, though it tends to blend together into more of an amorphous blob with fewer standout moments. The lush way that “Plains” teems with possibility and only flashes mere seconds of loud guitars makes it individually compelling, and “We Were Wealth” has Jenn Wasner proving that she’s a scary talented vocalist with a power and range the band has only begun to fully explore. Outside of the general sound of the record though, the lyrical side of Wye Oak has always been one of their strongest suits. Of course it’s also been the main source of their dark and depressing side. “Hopeless light darkens my door/so I cannot cry”, Wasner opines on opening track “Two Small Deaths”, a song that is about what the title describes. The title track is perhaps the most interesting piece lyrically, starting out immediately with “I am nothing without pretend/I know my thoughts/Can’t live with them” and then going slightly creepy by saying “I still keep my baby teeth/on the bedside table with my jewelry”. Actually that second part may be a little endearing if you think about it. But it’s not all darkness and odd teeth fetishes. “Holy Holy” tries to put a positive spin on things with “all human joy is precious/and I for one should know this”, but really what she’s saying is that she wasn’t careful and lost the joy in her life. Perhaps my favorite lyrics of the entire record come on “Dog Eyes”, with the pure poetry of “a deep hole, a secret, in order to feed it/a season of growing into everyone knowing”. It’s lines like that which make Wye Oak a very special and cool band, even if there’s a focus on the morbid side of things.

The best thing that can be said about “Civilian” as a whole is that it’s an improvement. The duo has progressed forwards and are making strides in the absolute right direction. It’s interesting because unlike so many bands that catch on at their debut albums and spend the rest of the time trying to regenerate that same sort of praise and hype, Wye Oak are only building more momentum with each new release. They’ve yet to reach the point where one of their records shoves them outright into the spotlight, but they keep getting closer and closer. Unfortunately “Civilian” is probably not going to be the one that does it for them, even though it is their best to date. There are a couple of so-so songs that don’t have the same magic or mojo as the others, and it’s enough to keep the buzz at bay for just a little longer. What’s most exciting about this new album though is how the arrangements stick out in a more riveting way than ever before, breaking free of the ever-present darkness to expose small cracks of light. While noisy, fuzzed out shoegaze-inspired guitars are part of their signature, throwing any normal grooves or folk-inspired melodies off-kilter in the most unique way possible, trying to flesh out and organically generate some of those moments instead of jumping in head first might make Wye Oak a better band. Of course who am I to be giving them tips on what to do next – given their track record of building up with each new release, it’s highly likely they’re going to get exactly where they need to go without anyone else’s help.

Wye Oak – Civilian

Buy “Civilian” from Amazon

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