Warps and all: up close with Sharon Van Etten on vinyl

imageAfter a heady couple of months for the confessional singer in which she has released an acclaimed EP, debuted at Glastonbury and unveiled a fine song for a Tig Notaro documentary, I here provide a handy guide to the plastic highlights that have accompanied her upward trajectory. Painfully honest, soul-baring songs? Great! On black, clear or white vinyl within a gatefold sleeve? Even better!

Are We There – LP (2014)

Like a lot of people, I first bought into Sharon Van Etten on record after reading the raft of excellent reviews accompanying her fourth album, Are We There, quick to learn that the intimate feel of vinyl made it the perfect format for her own brand of startlingly personal songs. I made the purchase last December at the legendary imagePiccadilly Records in Manchester, where the album featured prominently both on the racks and within the shop’s End of Year Review, with many a sales assistant placing it in their top ten of 2014, while the ‘Best Album of the Year’ accolade went, as ever, to some ‘ethereal folk’ act I had never heard of (all ‘spacerock rhythms’ this and ‘celestial flutterings’ that). I wasn’t disappointed in its contents when I got it home, either: a husky voice, superb songs, great production. And it just looked beautiful: a classy black-and-white cover photo on a litho-wrapped gatefold sleeve, seeming to encapsulate an On The Road moment of freedom. All this, while acknowledging that, yes, on first listening, the LP is relentlessly dour and miserable.

On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the songs on Are We There are uncompromisingly slow and moody because they appear to be born out of a frankly unhealthy relationship. Van Etten sings about painful stuff to do with a breakup, but thankfully without resorting to histrionics in the style of, say, Mary J. Blige (who practically warbles herself to death on the single ‘No More Drama’). A standout is ‘Your Love is Killing Me’, which is absolutely exhausting as a six-minute exercise in emotional catharsis – but enjoyably so! The singles ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ and ‘Nothing Wiimagell Change’ are equally sublime in their expression of resignation and vulnerability, while the heartfelt lyrics to all the songs are reproduced on the sleeve from Van Etten’s own hand, bringing an extra level of intimacy to the record. An accompanying letter further puts the listener into the position of confidante, where we read that the record is ‘very much me, being strong, being weak, being open – being myself’. But while all this may sound overly earnest, don’t worry, because Van Etten injects her songs with plenty of caustic wit, most notably on the now-famous line in ‘Sun’: ‘I washed your dishes, but I shitted in your bathroom’. Furthermore, the cathartic process is obviously effective, because she audibly collapses into a fit of giggles at the end of Side B.

An outstanding album, then, but don’t just listen to me – check out the ‘reviews’ it has received on Amazon: not only ‘just love it’, ‘sublime’ and ‘an axis of slow rock/popimage ballads’, but also ‘ok’, ‘great’ and, best of all, ‘arrived well’. And if you haven’t got it already (or even if you have), you should get it on limited edition clear vinyl, though equally arresting is the white-vinyl version produced for Urban Outfitters, a retailer for whom Van Etten revealed (in a questionnaire) that her favourite record store in all the world is Princeton Record Exchange in her homeland of New Jersey, known to locals as Prex. Interesting.

Tramp – LP (2012)

The most obvious next place to go, after Are We There, is Van Etten’s third album, Tramp, which was the singer’s imagefirst on the hip Jagjaguwar label and ostensibly her breakthrough record, its title being a reference to her itinerant state at the time of recording. The direct stare on the sleeve in itself tells us that she has serious shit to unload, and we find that both the image and the songs are influenced by John Cale’s Fear (1974), an album replete with brooding songs and lyricism. But don’t ever call the record ‘star-studded’ as Van Etten hates people going on about how it was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National and how it features members of War On Drugs and Beirut. And she is right to be annoyed, because all we really need to know is that the album is chock full of staggeringly good tracks. ‘Give Out’, for starters, is wonderfully dark and gloomy with its fatalistic chorus: ‘you’re the reason why I’ll move to the city, you’re why I’ll need to leave’. ‘Serpents’, too, stands proud with its fierce drumming and edgy guitar, on top of which Van Etten gets mean and spiteful towards her ex-lover, spitting out the words: ‘serpents in my mind, I am searching for your crimes’. It is rare for a song about deep mistrust and isolation to sound so exhilarating, so it is easy to see why she adopted it as her opener at Glastonbury. I even noticed some people in the audience very nearly dancing to it!

The vinyl version of Tramp again comes in a glorious litho-wrapped sleeve, while worthy of note is the seven-inch of ‘Serpents’, lifted from the LP. There is an exclusive B side to be discovered here, titled ‘Mike McDermott’, an unusually gritty piece that features a far-out synth solo from yet another famous indie collaborator, Sufjan Stevens (it’s hard to keep up with all the stars on this Tramp-era stuff, it really is!). Attention should also be paid to other ‘Tramp’ imagesingle ‘Leonard‘, named most probably after major influence Leonard Cohen, but which is not, as you might expect, all that gloomy, being a rather dreamy and buoyant waltz. It still features guilt-laden lyrics, though, of course (‘I am baaaaad at loving you’, goes the chorus). It is also a song that Van Etten performed on ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’ Brien’, thereby gaining a lot of exposure in the States, the show being, as they seem to say a lot on CNN, ‘a big deal’. And it is backed by a quality song in the shape of ‘Life Of His Own’, characterised by quiet guitar strums, harmonies and wanting equality in a relationship.

imageOn top of Van Etten’s ‘Tonight Show’ appearance came another version of Tramp in the form of Tramp Demos, principally to keep up growing interest in the singer. With a fairly unflattering self-portrait on the sleeve (weird nose!), the record consists of the very same songs as on the original (in the very same order) but as works in progress. They also provide further evidence that the singer is completely unafraid to reveal her innermost feelings, particularly by adding to the mix copious liner notes from her journals to explain the origins of each track. Truly, does this woman keep nothing to herself?!

Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around – single (2013)

Then there is a real curio in the Van Etten catalogue, exclusive mainly to those who got up early enough on Record Store Day in April 2013 (which I failed to). It’s a seven-inch, housed within a double-gatefold sleeve, released on Sub-Pop and limited to 1,000 copies, being a cover of theimage classic Stevie Nicks solo hit from 1981, on which the Fleetwood Mac singer duetted with Tom Petty. Van Etten, however, teams up with Shearwater, the Texan rock band with whom she toured, as part of the online AV Club Undercover series in Spring 2012. It is an attempt, then, to emulate one of the great rock pairings in history, even greater, perhaps, than Bryan Adams with Sporty Spice (1998) – but not definitely. And they damn near pull it off, too, on a track that takes as its subject a woman expressing discontent at being used and abused by a dirty-dealing-drifter type: ‘So you’ve had a little trouble in town, Now you’re keeping some demons down’. But we should never forget the version recorded by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, ‘Stop Draggin’ My Car Around’, a clever reimagining of the song as a satire on heavy-handed parking penalties: ‘I didn’t know it was a loading zone […] I had to chase that tow truck all over town’.

Unlike Weird Al, Van Etten/Shearwater offer a straight cover of the song, highly respectful of the original and without irony. And it rocks! In a sinister way. Obviously you need to check out the video on YouTube, too, where you can witness the obvious chemistry between the two singers, as well as get a good look at Van Etten’s tattoo-covered arms, including black armbands. Worth mentioning, also, is the fact that you get another exclusive B side, the very subdued ‘A Wake For The Minotaur’. No idea what the cover artwork is all about though.

Much More Than That – single (2007)

But what about Van Etten’s first record? I’d be imagemightily impressed to just see this with mine own eyes: a limited-edition seven-inch single, released by Abaton Book Co. as part of something called a Lost Lathe Series. It is a collectible, to say the least, which officially introduced approximately 30 people to the singer’s sorrowful voice and sparse-sounding songs. It also premiered the intimate lyrics that would quickly have her tagged as a ‘confessional’ songwriter, along with the inevitable Joni Mitchell comparisons that our very own Laura Marling has also had to get used to. She leaves herself open to it, I suppose, in the very first line, when she pleads to her lover, ‘Please don’t take me lightly / I mean every word’. But, unlike contemporaries like St Vincent, she doesn’t seem to object to the categorisation, in any case offering a deceptively simple song here that illuminates how seemingly insignificant moments in a relationship can have meaning. ‘You look at me so slyly / But only when I’m smiling / Every other time your head looks down’, she offers. It’s sensitive and poignant, even while it forces the listener into a position as some kind of creepy eavesdropper.

Because I Was in Love – LP (2009) 

This full-lengther was the first record on which Van Etten, now based in Brooklyn, really found her sound, and the first that was professionally recorded – by veteran psych-rocker Greg Weeks. You could say it was here that she created her templateimage, so often described as ‘folky’ (mainly because of the liberal use of acoustic guitar) and replete with uncensored, open-book-style songs, together with those majestic harmonies. Indeed, following on from ‘Much More Than That’, the harmonies are a real feature of this album, a talent for which Van Etten developed as a kid in the church choir. She pretty much produces a double-harmony sound by being her own backing vocalist, achieved through overdubbing in the studio and sometimes known as a ‘chorus of one’. Enya was a successful practitioner of the technique back in the 80s, notably on the New Age smash ‘Orinoco Flow’, but do not be troubled, as Van Etten is not nearly as irritating in her use of it, producing a wonderfully affecting sound, no more so than on the chorus of ‘Have You Seen’. Indeed, this album alone marks Van Etten out as an elite vocalist of the highest order, able also to evoke the likes of Patti Smith (who also performed magnificently at Glastonbury this year) – vulnerable and raspy, yet also strong and pure and unaffected.

epic – LP (2010)

This is another essential Van Etten release – an LP that is very much like an EP in that it consists of just seven songs. The singer expands imageon her post-breakup preoccupations with a beefed-up and tougher sound, while picking up the pace a little bit, often with a band. You can definitely hear how tracks like ‘Love More’ drew the attention of illustrious indie musicians like Bon Iver and helped make her a star. The self-portrait on the cover is also a noticeable improvement on previous attempts (at least you can tell this one is her! – just about).

I’m Giving Up On You – single (2010)

A further vinyl release came just a month after epic, in the shape of another seven-inch, titled ‘I’m Giving Up On You’, limited to just image500 copies. The A side is a very low-volume affair with a home-recording quality to it, featuring a sonorous double-bass and, once again, those mournful harmonies. It sees Van Etten lament the past as something intangible, compared with the hard reality of the present: ‘Forget everything you’ve done, now it’s none’. It’s also thoroughly depressing stuff and, dare I say, slightly dirgey. The B side, ‘You Didn’t Really Do That’, with its strumming guitar, consequently comes as light relief, if you can describe a song in which the singer confronts her own mortality as ‘light relief’.

I Don’t Wanna Let You Down – EP (2015)

This latest record from Van Etten, timed to coincide with her South American tour and her festival appearances, demonstrates that she has no intention of letting standards slip. For certainly, while first impressions might lead you to believe that this five-track EP, lasting just 22 minutes, is merely a coda to the Are We There album, or a collection of offcuts, it becomes clear that the songs are too damn good to be dismissed in such a way. The title track, showcased to fine effect on The Ellen Show in January (though with slightly wobbly vocals at imagethe start), is particularly appealing because of its unusually grungy guitar solo. But probably more interesting tune-wise is the slow, piano-based ‘Just Like Blood’, on which Van Etten wallows in feelings of abandonment. ‘I Always Fall Apart’ is, if possible, even more doom-laden, while the singer generally continues to fret about her personal relationships and ply her insecurities, leading her to conclude, in ‘Pay My Debts’, that ‘I know myself better than you do’.

The EP is obviously readily available on black vinyl, but what we must strive for, comrades, is the deeply rare seven-inch of the title track, because it is backed with a ‘secret song’ called ‘All Over Again’. Van Etten played it at Glastonbury, where she commented, “You can’t get it anywhere – sorry about that”. This is a shame because it sounded seriously good. Does anybody actually have this?

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