Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sharon Van Etten: "Tramp" (album review)

It took a while for Sharon Van Etten's 2010 album Epic to resonate with me.  I saw her live and heard the record and still nothing.  That's until a handful of songs began to germinate for me.  Eventually I came to consider it a powerful personal musical statement.

With that in mind I have been strongly anticipating her follow-up, Tramp, which is set to come out on February 7th.

What made the Epic songs creep into my mind was the subtle tweaks Van Etten employed to keep them from becoming slow-song cliches.  Unfortunately, Tramp doesn't fair as well.

Never one for annunciation, Van Etten mumbles her way through the opener "Warsaw", providing an inauspicious beginning (and wasting an intriguing glimmering guitar).  The stripped down "Kevin's" is painfully slow.  She does manage to create a desolate atmosphere on "Give Out", however she pushes it a little too far, pushing the listener away and making her seem like a loner rather than lonesome.

Van Etten seems to have lost her own vocal style as well.  On songs like "In Line", "We Are Fine", and "Ask" she seems content to ape Chan Marshall.  And bland Chan Marshall at that.

There's a lack of cohesiveness to the songs.  Frustratingly, when a song does build up the arrangements tend to fall apart before they reach an apex.  That leaves songs like "Leonard" and "All I Can" feeling prematurely stunted.

As a result of all of this, the album lacks songs like "Don't Do It" or "One Day", which evoked visceral and empathetic responses from the listener.  The penultimate track "I'm Wrong" comes the closest, but by that time it's a case of too little too late.

The lead single "Serpents" is a notable exception to these criticisms.  The songs swells, largely on the strength of Van Etten's vocals, before coming to a fiery end.

Tramp seems to demonstrate that there's a fine line to tread with introspective music.  It can be personal and poignant, but at some point you need to think about what the listener is hearing and whether that's enjoyable.  Van Etten doesn't do that on this record, and therefore her message is lost.

Sharon Van Etten plays Lee's Palace in Toronto on February 21st with Shearwater.

Best tracks: "Serpents", "I'm Wrong"

Track listing for Tramp:
  • Warsaw
  • Give Out
  • Serpents
  • Kevin's
  • Leonard
  • In Line
  • All I Can
  • We Are Fine
  • Magic Chords
  • Ask
  • I'm Wrong
  • Joke Or a Lie

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good review, and i totally agree. some of her original sincerity is lost on this record. preferred her early demos.