Time-Out Review: Tramp by Sharon Van Etten

(Every once in a while, CK takes a time out from counting down old songs to concentrate on a new release.)

I had originally intended to use my Time-Out review this week on Paul McCartney’s new album, Kisses On The Bottom, which is a pleasant, lightly jazzy collection of standards that wisely stays out of Rod Stewart Hamsville territory. As a Beatlemaniac, I felt it was my duty. But I’ve spent much of the past week listening instead to this captivating album by a singer about which I’d frankly never heard anything before.

So I think even Macca himself would approve. After all, nothing I say will likely change your mind about whether an album of standards is your cup of tea or not. But Sharon Van Etten just might be as new to you as she was to me, so I feel I’m performing a greater service by raving over her new album Tramp.

Maybe you already know Van Etten from her previous two albums. The Brooklyn-based chanteuse is now moving with some fast friends from the indie music world, chief among them The National’s Aaron Dessner, who produces Tramp. I haven’t heard the previous two albums (I plan to now,) but this album feels like the culmination of a steady upward climb for a major songwriting talent.

Van Etten tends to focus solely on relationships on the album, which is fine when she gives you so many different takes on the subject. Dessner works hard to make sure the backing sounds fresh with each cut, whether things are gritty and propulsive ( like “Warsaw” or “Serpents,”) or stark and atmospheric (like “Joke Or A Lie” or “Kevin’s.”)

Of course, none of the various approaches would work without a strong set of songs on which to hang them, and Van Etten has that department all sewn up. Whether she’s dressing down her lover in “Serpents” or apologizing for her own faults in “Leonard” (“I’m bad at loving you,”) she has a knack for getting both sides of the story, rendering her material with welcome depth and complexity.

She also has a unique, elongated delivery that keeps listeners hanging on each word waiting for the payoff that inevitably comes. Her voice is strong enough that it can compensate often when the lyrics fail to get the adequately mood across, although those occasions are rare.

There are several standouts to be found, including the stunning “All I Can,” which shows Van Etten vulnerable from a broken relationship but still with enough spine to speak up. The music insistently builds until the singer powerfully belts out her words to stand out above the cacophony. On “I’m Wrong,” she’s asking for lies from her reticent lover because the truth is too hard to bear:  “Tell me I’m wrong/Tell me it hasn’t been that long.”

Tramp is a bit of a misleading title, suggesting a showy brazenness to the material that isn’t evident. In truth, the songs are much subtler than that, provoking their emotions from a sly turn of phrase here and a quiver in the voice there. The final line of album closing “Joke Or A Lie,” delivered by Van Etten over spare guitar strums and some ethereal squalls of sound, is a heartbreaker that hints at a sad finality:  “Believe me I tried.”

In relationships, trying might not always be enough to overcome human frailty and external pressures. Sharon Van Etten seems to have learned all these hard truths, and she delivers them back to her audience in a way that never feels forced or predictable. If Tramp makes the impact it deserves, I just might have reviewed some standards this week after all.  RATING:  8.8 (out of 10)

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