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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: Beirut – The Rip Tide [Pompeii]

It seems like Beirut has been around forever. The truth of course is that the fresh-faced Zach Condon only first caught our attention with his first full length “Gulag Orkestar” a mere 5 years ago. His progress since then has been relatively remarkable, cranking out sophmore effort “The Flying Club Cup”, the “Lon Gisland” and “Elephant Gun” EPs in ’07 and the “March of the Zapotec/Holland” EPs in ’09. It may have been four years since his last full length, but that stream of EPs and other random bits have kept Beirut on the tips of our tongues for that gap anyways. Throw in the band’s very Old World/Eastern European sound, and it makes a little more sense as to why these last 5 years have seemed like much longer. The reason why there’s been a bit of a gap between Beirut full lengths likely has to do with Condon’s desire to retain full control over his music. He spent last winter recording new album “The Rip Tide” while simultaneously creating his own record label, Pompeii Records. Now a fully functioning, fully independent machine, the band is prepared for the next chapter of their musical journey.

One of the more notable things about the “March of the Zapotec/Holland” double EP was that it was split between two different Zach Condon projects. Beirut was responsible for the “March of the Zapotec” first half, while Condon’s old solo project Realpeople was credited for the “Holland” half. The difference between the two was not only broken down to full band vs. solo, but sonically the Realpeople material was confined to keyboards, synths and other electronic textures rather than the ukuleles, horns and piano Beirut was known for. Given the way that musical trends are headed these days, with glo-fi, synth-pop and electronica becoming more and more popular, you might think Condon would adapt a bit and incorporate some of those Realpeople textures into his much more traditional and ancient sound. That turns out to not be the case on “The Rip Tide”, the focus instead being on scaling back Beirut’s increasingly dense collection of instruments down to just a few key elements. Just because there’s less variety in terms of instruments being played doesn’t mean the arrangements are any less complicated though. There’s not much on the album that’s outright difficult or so obtuse that it might alienate people that already like the band, but a few moments do play around with traditional song structures and venture into territory they haven’t quite covered before. First single “Santa Fe” does play around with electro textures just a little bit and winds up becoming one of the catchiest and best Beirut songs to date. So it’s a standout not simply because it sticks in your head but also because it daringly betrays the more Eastern European sound the band has been cultivating these last few years. Then you examine a track like “Payne’s Bay”, which is otherwise right in Condon’s wheelhouse sonically, but has no discernible chorus and feels like it effortlessly blends two different “movements” into one. It may not be the easiest track to engage with, but the more time and listens you give it, the more you find it rewarding and fascinating.

Speaking directly of Condon’s vocal performance, he’s almost at the point where he could sing on Autopilot and it’d sound lovely. Already showing off as a prodigy of age 19 when he first arrived to us via “Gulag Orkestar”, with age comes a newfound weariness and a small throttling for somebody with plenty of range to work with. That’s not to say he sounds tired or unexpressive, but rather older, wiser and a little less eager to prove himself (probably because he no longer needs to). Still, opening track “A Candle’s Fire” clears some nice vocal hurdles, and by that same token so does the grandiose closing number “Port of Call”. In between is less so, but what is lost in range is made up for with a looser, more playful air. That comes across in both his singing as well as a few melodies, breaking out of the all-too-familiar “slow waltz” shell and into something more uptempo and generally pleasant. “East Harlem” and “Vagabond” speak nicely to that, while if high drama balladry is what you seek then “Goshen” or “The Peacock” also fit like a warm glove. Transitionally speaking the balance works pretty well, with the quicker bits moving into the slower bits and the mid-tempo stuff filling in the rest of the gaps.

The way “The Rip Tide” parses things out via a mixture of accessible, traditional and experimental melodies certainly makes this the most solid of all of Beirut’s efforts. There’s never a moment where this record just cruises along like a well-worn shoe. Instead, there are consistent surprises and changes from track-to-track that leave you guessing and anticipating what might come next. Add to that the stats of being a 9-track, 33-minute record and the whole thing is over before you know it. It never wears out its welcome because it finishes before having a chance to. Throw in a more Western, pop-friendly influence on occasion as well, and Beirut is more poised than ever to earn some major mainstream attention. Consider it either ironic or carefully planned that such things happen when Condon has reached his most independent, with full control over his music via his own label. Without a bigger push behind this record, it could easily slip between the cracks and become a vastly underrated gem by year’s end. Don’t let that happen. This might not have the same power or display of mastery that a record like “The Flying Club Cup” did, but it is a very promising start to what will hopefully be a great next step for Beirut.

Beirut – Santa Fe

Beirut – East Harlem

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