With a chalky, semi-soulful croon, and stories that rummage through a range of stashed away emotions, Sharon Van Etten began fanning the critical fires in her favor a little more than a year ago with the release of Because I Was In Love
...a bare and minimal batch of heartbreak that offered the Southern raised Brooklynite nowhere to hide. Out in front, exposed, bare, and unapologetic; these always seem the most admirable of qualities in musicians, making it oh-so-easy to fall for her acoustic grace.
Her latest release Epic
makes a deliberate effort to expand on that groundwork, offering a number of tunes that more closely mimic the full-band alignment Van Etten is flaunting at shows these days. "Peace Signs" is the best example of this new order, with drums providing the driving pulse to a flurry of electric atmospherics and a vocal approach that mirrors the more aggressive approach. "Don't Do It" also offers a similar beat, though less effectively and at a less enthralling pace.
Also tossed into the mix is a wispy country tune dubbed "Save Yourself"; a possible ode to Southern roots. Here her voice funnels through an appropriate drip of reverb. With her lack of range, she sounds uncomfortable at the helm, hiding behind misshaped harmonies that fall just short of beauty. For a much more appetizing slice of twang, look to "One Day".
Despite the thicker fabric she's cloaked the aforementioned in, Van Etten still sounds at her most affecting when taking the lonely route. On "DsharpG" her voice floats in an eerie cloud of harmonium; a spooky touch that proves the perfect accompaniment to her low, somber tones. Same goes for "Love More", Epic's closer and possible highlight. A reflective tune that spins heartbreak into some kind of tough appreciation ("Tied to my bed/I was younger then/I had nothing to spend but time on you/But it made me love, it made me love, it made me love more"), the song is a weeper that rides mysterious textures, dense harmonies, and subtle hints of guitar for a definitive note to end the collection on. These two particular songs also point to another shift in Van Etten's approach; one that finds her trading obvious emotion for something more moody and interpretative...superior sonic qualities in my book.
And so, Epic
provides a slightly uneven ride. Sure, Van Etten's stab at something on the side of rock might have some (e.g. – me) reaching for her first album. But those who hang in there are rewarded with some of the best work of her recorded career. Either way, it proves Van Etten is curious, and eager to experiment. Such a restless creative nature generally leads to bigger, brighter things. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see what lies on the other side of Epic
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MP3: "Love More"
Sharon Van Etten on Myspace