Sharon Van Etten Won’t Let You Doze Off
One of my most vivid musical memories involves bellying up at an upstairs bar called Sirens in Port Townsend (Wash.), with the sun gleaming in through a balcony door late on a Saturday afternoon. The beer was dark, the food was good, and the soundtrack was Cat Power – specifically, The Greatest. I could have stayed there forever, and when I’m hard-up for inspiration, I frequently go back there in my mind.
After lunch one recent Wednesday, I was fixing to take a nap, as I’d been working until midnight all week, and rising toddlers (I have two) are an unforgiving sort. I put on Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Are We There, for the first time, confident that it would soothe me to slumber. Only, to a track, the songs were so good that I just laid there and listened.
The parallels between Van Etten and Cat Power are uncanny. Both produce hip, wily tunes that are virtually unclassifiable, and both subtly draw upon soul music for inspiration, peppering their compositions with organs and horns (on Are We There, the sublime “Tarifa” is the primary beneficiary on this front). But vocally, Van Etten at her most powerful is reminiscent of Brandi Carlile. Yet unlike Carlile, who only knows fifth gear, Van Etten is nimble enough to throttle down, in service of the song.
Lyrically, Van Etten writes of sullied human interaction, and often indicts herself. “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom,” she sings in an exaggeratedly drawn-out, Mazzy Starrish manner on “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” the album’s closer, which ranks among its three or four best songs. Ultimately, Are We There is the LP that is sure to elevate Van Etten from being loved in Williamsburg to gaining fans in Wichita.
Van Etten’s label is Jagjaguwar, a sister imprint to Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans. All three are quietly based in Bloomington, Indiana, and their better artists–The War on Drugs, Bon Iver and Phosophorescent among them–mutt up their music in a manner befitting of the Midwest, whose gumbo-like culture is often mistaken for having no spice. If the labels’ sound were more unified–or, short of that, if it were just one label–we’d be talking about it in the way we once talked about SubPop or Lost Highway. But such immodesty just doesn’t suit the region.