ALBUM REVIEW: Sharon Van Etten “Are We There”

Sharon Van Etten



“I can’t wait ’til we’re afraid of nothing,” sings Sharon Van Etten, in her silvery and harmony-braided way, on the opening track of her new album Are We There. “I can’t wait ’til we hide from nothing.” The song– “Afraid Of Nothing”– has a sweeping clean-slate quality to it: it’s a fresh start, a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it’s the lyrics, or maybe it’s the flourishing, diva-esque piano chords, but there’s weight to this beginning. With its very first chords, Are We There establishes a low center of gravity. These songs are sturdy, they’re in it for the long haul.

That’s the power of skillfully deployed vocal acrobatics and complete mastery of your subject matter. Big, theatrical romantic breakdown has long been at the core of Van Etten’s musical landscape, and her sharpest tool is a voice that can be bent but never broken. Her albums–there are four of them now, beginning with 2009’s Because I Was In Love–are stories of how she uses the latter to navigate the former, a journey that the title of this latest record suggests is still ongoing.

And on Are We There that path is as satisfying and surprising as ever. Van Etten’s major themes haven’t changed much, but her aesthetic has expanded in every direction. On some tracks, like this album’s opener, she traverses an Adele-esque range and corresponding sense of drama–her sadness so straightforward it’s almost cloying–but elsewhere, her voice is stretched to its strange outer limits as pain gives way to blood-letting.

Just look at “Your Love Is Killing Me,” only three songs into this thing. It is possibly my favorite cut on the album, and it’s a great example of the far end of Van Etten’s sweet-spooky spectrum. The song begins with a vaguely militant beat that reappears in the chorus as triplets of crisply pissed off snare rapping. Then there’s her voice, so stridulent at its apex that she barely sounds human. “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you. Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you,” she sings. This goes on: “Burn my skin so I can’t feel you. Stab my eyes so I can’t see… you like it when I let you walk over me.” Behind the exorcism, behind the declarations of brokenness, there’s powerful orchestration–swirling guitar lines, cycling piano chords–backing up these words.

Van Etten’s speaking voice is downright cute, and sometimes, listening to her talk, it’s easy to imagine that she sings love songs of the quietly forlorn, tea-drinking-while-moodily-gazing-out-windows-onto-overcast-skies variety. And though there’s plenty of sadness on Are We There, it never sounds neutered: even the songs that never rise above a whisper come with the reminder that they know how to snarl.

Are We There ends on another highlight: the deceptively simple, deceptively sweet “Every Time The Sun Comes Up.” Van Etten arranges the lyrics into a sing-song-ish pattern, like a riddle, and the mood straddles optimism and gloom. There are flashes of self-contained thoughts, like the coyly meta “People say I’m a one hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?” Then the song settles into a kind of moody anti-love song, with “I washed your dishes then I shit in your bathroom.” Listening to the song feels like being inside Van Etten’s head, trying to follow a string of thoughts and fluctuations that aren’t explained or organized into a performance. It’s the most interior song on the album, and in a way, it’s also the most obscured. The journey from the album’s opening track “Afraid Of Nothing,” which is a performance not only in its theatricality but also in the sense that Van Etten has a specific audience–the complicated, ever-present love interest that has ravaged and fascinated her music since she began playing publicly.

But by this album’s end, we feel that Van Etten isn’t on stage anymore, but is right beside us, spilling her guts in a less organized, and perhaps more mundane way. That doesn’t make her guts uninteresting–the evocative snippets that we get on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” are some of the most intriguing on an album full of compelling lyrical lines. Mundanity, in Sharon Van Etten’s case, is anything but.

Are We There dropped on May 27th via Jagjaguwar. Go here to buy it via iTunes. Watch the great and profoundly depressing video for “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” below:

Album Review: Pink Mountaintops – Get Back


I saw a photograph lying in the street

Picture of you 

Oh and how times change

Though it has been five years since we’ve heard anything from Pink Mountaintops, frontman Steve McBean has remained incredibly busy. Moving from his homebase in Vancouver to Los Angeles didn’t stop him from releasing Wilderness Heart with Black Mountain in 2010, retooling Black Mountain songs for the Year Zero soundtrack in 2012, or forming Grim Tower and putting out Anarchic Breezes under that moniker last year. Always a musician who has shuffled from project to project with a surprisingly clear vision for each (despite the generally stoney vibes that tie them all together) McBean tapped producer Joe Cardamone in releasing the band’s sixth studio album, Get Back.

With any of his endeavors, McBean’s never focused on experimenting with new instruments, electronic beats or fancy vocal effects, and Get Back is no different. With this record, he set out once again to create a pure, plain and simple rock’n’roll document, and he accomplishes exactly that; there are no frills, no underlying agendas or messages, no subtleties. Get Back sets a scene, creates a mood and proves that you don’t have to look to the future to create something new and interesting. To the contrary, McBean riffs on the past and creates an album that captures the truest essences of a rock’n’roll lifestyle, which according to him consist of “Alleys, curbs, walls, and cigarette stained gig flyers. An island on the Pacific coast. Fake British towns. Slayer posters. The beauty of youth. It’s about listening to ‘Driver’s Seat‘ and ‘Guns of Brixton‘ and hotboxing The Duster.”

Get Back may be only ten tracks long, lasting for just under 40 minutes, but for those 40 minutes it’s easy to be transported back to the irresponsibility of youth. It evokes those times when I thought it was cool to litter floors with cigarette butts, those times I had to wear sunglasses inside because I was too hungover for fluorescent lighting, those times getting drunk in the woods behind the powerlines because I was too young to go to bars and had nowhere else to go. With hook-driven guitar riffs, lyrics that sometimes veer into the nonsensical, and McBean’s dramatic yet sincere vocals, Get Back perfectly encapsulates the angst, spontaneity, romance and irresponsibility of youth.

It is no accident that Get Back brings one back to their reckless teenage years. The whole album is a nostalgia trip, and McBean makes this no secret. From “The Second Summer of Love,” which, according to McBean, was in 1987, to the distorted doo-wop of “Sixteen,” where McBean laments “and all we want tonight is to fall in love beneath the midnight sky” McBean clearly looked back to his teenage years, dredging up all of the drama and recklessness that comes along with it. This thematic approach works well, as no two things go together better than teenage kicks and rock’n’rollWhen Joe Cardamone told McBean to “Sing it like you would’ve sung it when you were 21,” I doubt that he expected him to do so with such sincerity.

But it’s not just nostalgia that drives Get Back; the record is also a sentimental exploration of hedonistic West Coast urges and how they play out in McBean’s newest home. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the record’s lead single, “North Hollywood Microwaves,” which features Giant Drag frontwoman and Cali native Annie Hardy.  Her adenoidal, X-rated ramblings over bass-driven beats and dystopic melodies give it a hyper, free-wheeling zaniness, and set it apart from the rest of the LP’s more straightforward brand of stoner rock. The album opens with driving drums, urgent guitar and grungy vocals on “Ambulance City” and moves through a veritable buffet of dirty, psych jams before ending, appropriately, with “The Last Dance.” Rather than striving to separate himself from the rock influences of the past, McBean celebrates and elaborates on them at every turn.

Get Back brings out the teenage miscreant in all of us. Make sure to pick it up when it comes out on 4/29 via Jagjaguwar records.