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Indie Folk Haunted By Sharon Van Etten’s Lyrics And Harmonies, ‘Tramp’ Is A Mesmerizing Example Of The Genre

taylor
Written by taylor
/ 6 mins read

I discovered Sharon Van Etten on the radio only a couple of months ago, blown away by what I considered to be a haunting new rock voice with the presence of Stevie Nicks during the Fleetwood Mac days, though Etten’s is her own distinctive style indeed – her own contralto which leans towards folk. When discovering somebody so new and exciting for me, I like to glance at their entire album catalogue and split the difference as to what I will listen to first. In this way, I find that I can establish a baseline of style, because the debut stuff is going to be one end of the spectrum, and the recent stuff the other. Listening to studio album number three, Tramp, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t feature much electronic elements at all, like the newer songs I had heard already, such as “Seventeen” and “No One’s Easy to Love.” Tramp is indie folk, with some alternative rock edge that gets raw and weird in some great places. Some of that great energy is courtesy of producer Aaron Dresner’s deft hand at the controls (he is from a really exceptional band called The National.) I suppose during the 2010s when Tramp came out (2012), I for that time period was anti indie folk because I could not properly differentiate between so many artists doing what I felt sounded like the same depressing acoustic coffeehouse music, and probably would have not listened deep enough to an album such as this one. My tastes have changed to include all types of music and musicians from the genre (just also discovered Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes) and it has been quite a revelation to hear that they do all have an individual enough sound. Stacked against such talents, Sharon Van Etten is up there with the best of them.

The Music Exists To Support The Central Figure Of Van Etten’s Voice

I can pick any song on Tramp and provide an example of Sharon Van Etten’s superior vocal skills, especially for the sub genre here – yet more than just singing well, she sings creatively, clearly attracted to the human side of music and musical arrangement, always looking to bend the voice and subsequently the rules, in the end producing work that is an individual artistic statement, because it comes from one unique interpretation of how to blend harmonies. I find myself listening again and again for new details within the vocals of several songs, such as “Ask”, which goes nowhere but the unexpected, especially in the warped sound of the background overdubs. I ask myself – what key is any of that man’? But it sounds so interesting, begging further and further attention. Van Etten’s vocals aren’t always low and semi-raspy – sometimes she spends much of a song in the falsetto range, such as on “Kevin’s”, yet more so here, her full range is eventually employed, and not to mention some serious and haunting accented twang on some of the words that probably was accompanied by a snarl in the vocal booth. Her voice harmonies go psychedelic on “I’m Wrong”, where again, she successfully approaches the edge of the cliff of what should even be acceptable, sending her voice on wild trajectories and becoming just as weird as the squelching buzz that grows louder in an ultimately very symphonic movement.

Whimsical Folk Moments With An Unsettling Twist

One specific quality I attribute to Sharon Van Etten which makes the biggest impression on me is her ability to go discordant on her vocal harmonies. The music that moves me is the kind that seeks to twist the melodies. A prime example of this dark magician action is with the song “We Are Fine.” At first, I’m like – ‘nope, heard this indie folk type of strumming and mournful swing to the vocal verses plenty of times.’ But what could have been mere ukulele music builds on something that gets spookier and spookier, until the mood shifts from light to dark thanks to super off vocal tones as they creep in layer upon layer, stretching out into witchy moans which line up expertly with reverbed guitar notes pushing out towards the void. “We Are Fine” thus becomes something so much more compelling and emotional – a perfect sound bed for a character study about co-dependency; “tell me not to trip or to lose sight / you are walking in my guided light / take my hand and help me not to shake / say I'm alright, I'm alright.” I do not know exactly what the character is ailing from, and though it could be just that she doubts her partner’s true love and wants him to reassure her, the most likely culprit is a crippling bout of anxiety, as hinted at within the lyrics “trying hard to breathe, head between my knees / take my hand and squeeze, say I'm alright.” I am all for indie folk that challenges through off the beaten path arrangements and arresting lyrics.

But It’s Also About The Chords

I am getting such a dark yet beautiful mood from the death march percussion and somber tone of the organ playing on “Magic Chords”, a combination that puts me in a trance. I close my eyes and nod in affirmation to both the beat and the curious lyrics; “you're talking too loud / won't you walk over, whisper / motion hands or bat a lash? / You gotta see there's too many eyes / you're walking too fast / why the hurry? Let me pace myself / no need to run a lap / you gotta lead.” The chords are compelling and capture both the bright moments and the unsettling moments masterfully. At first, I thought this might all be about someone she knows, like a lover, being arrogant in public and embarrassing her. Eventually, I came to feel that the content seemed to in fact describe a relationship that she is not ready for – and her partner is advancing too fast. Other wonderful chord moments occur especially on “Joke or a Lie”, where upon first listening, I have no idea where this heartbreakingly beautiful melody is venturing. The strings in the background never break, but keep swirling with these extremely touching and resonating notes whose progression bleeds rather than perceptively transitions. Van Etten as always finds the right complimentary tones to voice. Likewise on the biggest hit “Serpent” as it builds in layer upon layer of bad ass chords this time – exactly the type of sonic attitude associated with The National, and a nod to the producer Aaron Dessner. Truly excellent elements from excellent talents, and Van Etten can do no wrong in my book, thanks to her mesmerizing voice, ear for the right notes/chords, and complex and poetic lyrics.

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