Van Etten’s fourth studio album focuses on the future
by John Cameron
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There
Since her debut release Because I Was In Love in 2009, it’s seems like Sharon Van Etten’s been singing about her past. Her calling card, “Love More”, from 2010’s Epic, saw the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter framing her present joy around her younger self’s emotional desolation.
Though cagey about details, Van Etten’s made it clear that she’s pursued a music career, in part, to escape the shadow of a miserable relationship. On Are We There, Van Etten sings with a grace and nuance that some performers take decades to master, and it seems like no coincidence that she’s turning those talents, finally, away from singing about origins and towards the heart’s destinations.
She lets these journeys unfold in idiosyncratic, natural ways, which highlight the strengths of her singular voice: the way she grasps melody, the way harmony pours out of her like an expression of superego, the way a single sibilant syllable or a held vibrato vowel sound can almost make her bittersweet lyrics perceptible on the tongue.
“You Know Me Well” has the momentum of undertow, pulling you to its end before you even realize four minutes have passed. Euphoric piano ballad “I Know” is wine-dry and gorgeous, building to two triumphant, repeating chords at the end. “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” finds Van Etten letting the melody drop beautifully out of her mouth over the beat of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”.
It’s a move her former Jagjaguar labelmates Okkervil River always pulled expertly –– putting the record’s emotional centre at the very end and boldy signposting the connection to pop music past. But Van Etten adds her own wrinkle to the ending of “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” –– after silence, we hear an in-studio flub and a charming bit of chatter that briefly pulls aside the veil on this tower of song.
Listen again, and it’s giggling Van Etten all over, letting her headphones fall where they may. Listen again, and it’s like returning to a place you loved once not so long ago: misremembered details seen with corrective clarity, light in spaces you forgot light could ever reach.
Ordinarily, when a band writes a punk rock opera as Fucked Up did in 2011 with David Comes to Life, they register on the top end of the Creative Indulgence meter. But each of the Polaris Prize-winning band’s records has been such a natural evolution of their work that the results have always felt unpretentious.
Glass Boys might be seen as a regression from David because it isn’t a concept album, but it’s as gripping and ornate as anything they’ve done since Hidden World. The guitars are still stacked like skyscrapers, the vocals still invite you to shout along, and toy pianos and ethereal choirs still make cameos. Drummer Jonah Falco even went so far as to record his parts at multiple speeds and blend the results, giving the songs a uniquely slurred feel. Sure, Glass Boys ultimately sounds like a ’90s-era Creation Records band from the U.K. with F’ed Up’s Damian Abraham guesting on vocals. But it’s entirely in character. /Mason Pitzel
The Inuit art form of throat singing is traditionally done as call-and-response between two women. Cambridge Bay-born Tanya Tagaq works solo, so she turns that convention on its head. She’s further been described by the New York Times as “fiercely contemporary, futuristic even.” Her 2005 debut, Sinaa, and its 2009 follow-up, Auk/Blood, bolstered that rep while garnering Juno nominations for Aboriginal Recording of the Year.
The title of her third studio album Animism refers to Inuit spiritual beliefs related to the land. “Caribou”, “Rabbit” and “Tulugak” are three songs inspired by that theme. Along with “Fight”, “Flight”, “Howl” and others, they totally evoke what I imagine living in the unforgiving Arctic would be like. Tagaq has collaborated previously with Bjork and Kronos Quartet, and this album has a strong performative element to it too. But there’s intriguing instrumentation and soundscapes throughout, and some wonderful vocals. /Gregory Beatty
The song “The Secret Seven” could’ve come from any stage of Owen Pallett’s musical career: the early years playing under the moniker Final Fantasy, his stage persona as a guy with a violin and looping pedals, or his eventual musical rebirth under his own name. It’s intricate and lovely, his voice and the instruments coming into delicate balance.
His new album, In Conflict, doesn’t rest entirely on those moments. It’s his second album credited to Owen Pallett, and the first on Montreal label Secret City Records — and it further refines his artistic vision and its accompanying musical, ahem, palette. (Done throwing rotten tomatoes at me? One more? Okay. I deserve it.) The increased presence of electronics (some played by Brian Eno) and rhythm section/multi-instrumentalists Robbie Gordon and Matt Smith broaden the sonic focus of the songs, for good and for bad. For good is a track like “Infernal Fantasy”, a song Pallett wouldn’t have made before now. The preceding song, though, “The Riverbed”, feels like a tedious version of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”. /James Brotheridge