Sharon Van Etten, Live at the Doug Fir

There’s always something to do in Portland.  One night you can go see Cloud Nothings play at a rundown theater behind a bar, and the next night you can go see Sharon Van Etten play in the cozy basement of the Doug Fir.  In two nights you get to see a couple of the best albums of the year, all within a picturesque town experiencing its finest weather of the year.

(To the outsiders, we’ll keep up the myth of the omnipresent rain (so they won’t move here), but 1). it’s never that much, and it’s usually only part of the day and 2). the summer almost never sees rain, and it’s the perfect temperature.)

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

They took down the marquee before I could take a picture, so you get this.

The Doug Fir is my favorite venue in Portland: you get all the warmth and energy of a small club, but the sound system is excellent and you can hear all the necessary sonic details in perfect balance.  I have yet to see even a mediocre show at the venue, and it’s been home to some of my favorites over the years, including The Walkmen, British Sea Power, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids, and The Besnard Lakes.  Considering the quality of the acts that they book, my one concern is that I hope that the bands get enough of the gate that it makes their time coming out to Portland worthwhile.  It feels almost selfish that I get to see such great bands play in such a compact club.

The night kicked off with a set from Jana Hunter, touring apart from her regular gig with Lower Dens.  She had a decent set, augmenting 80’s synth-heavy beats (similar to those from the Drive soundtrack) provided by her laptop with heavily processed guitars (think early Jesus and Mary Chain or the most recent Dum Dum Girls record).  It was a perfectly pleasant way to start the evening, with a cover of “Maneater” lifting up the crowd’s spirits in particular.

Though Van Etten’s new album is notably bleak in several places, that didn’t mean that the show was a dour affair.  Sharon was both a spark and a soothing presence on stage, and in between songs she kept the mood light.  There were several fun jokes with the audience, including a discussion of her favorite ice cream (it involved multiple levels of peanut butter).  In other words, she was a complete delight.

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon Van Etten, a total delight

Sharon bounced around between several instruments, trading guitars for various keyboard instruments and alternating spots on stage with her backing band.  Each member of the backing band did a great job, most notably the piano player (and Portland native!) who did excellent work in harmonizing with Sharon’s uniquely beautiful voice.  The set was heavy on material from the new album, which is perfectly fine considering how outstanding it is, but it was probably Tramp standout “Serpents” that generated the largest response from the crowd.  The new material sounded even better live, with some of the processed parts sounding more organic in this particular setting.  The show’s climax was the same as the one on Are We There, the heartbreakingly depressing yet beautiful “Your Love Is Killing Me”, and Sharon and her band were able to wrench every bit of emotion possible from that gorgeous lament.

As I mentioned before, the evening wasn’t just one giant downer.  It helped with Sharon’s jokes between songs, like “here’s another total bummer song”, said in a playful manner, or when she debuted a new song, an outtake from Are We There called “I Always Fall Apart”*, she made sure to mention that it didn’t aaalways happen.  The night ended on a cheerful note, as the last song was the light-hearted “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, punctuated by comical pantomimes from Sharon.  Though I wish we could have heard some of my old favorites like “Warsaw” or “Magic Chords”, Sharon did more than enough to entertain the crowd in advance of the holiday weekend, and helped solidify the greatness of her new album with her excellent show.  Also, she succeeded in making me totally want to hang out with her.

*Not sure if this was the exact song title, since my memory is a little faded from last week (and Google is of no help), but it was along those lines.

Review: Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

I remember first hearing of Sharon Van Etten back when her previous album Tramp was released.  In reading the press materials for the record, the mentions of The National and The Antlers immediately grabbed my attention–Aaron Dessner of the former produced the album, and she provided the haunting vocals on the latter’s “Thirteen” from Hospice.  Add in the fact that she had a habit on stopping by the AV Club for their “Undercover” series, and I was sold.  I picked up Tramp and was entranced by her unique voice, a sweet yet vulnerable timbre equipped with a slight countryish tinge.  Songs like “Warsaw” and “Magic Chords” would stick in my head for days, but for many “Serpents” was the song that got people’s attention (it helped that it was used for a promotion for “The Walking Dead”, but hey, who am I to knock where people first hear great music?)

Are We There turns out to be an excellent showcase for the musical growth of Van Etten.  Before, most songs would reveal themselves at the beginning and consist of mainly basic elements; you would hear the verse and the chorus, usually using the same instruments, and have a good idea for how the rest of the song goes.  On Are We There, Van Etten instead opts for the “slow-reveal” approach, gradually building songs from the ground-up, slowly adding layers and building to thrilling climaxes.  Often these climaxes are mirrored by a cathartic release as Van Etten shares especially painful and confessional lyrics.  The ending of “Your Love Is Killing Me” is an unforgettable example, as she expands on the chorus to reveal that “You love me as you torture me; you tell me that you like it” as the band swells around her.

Van Etten also branches out with different instrumentation, moving beyond more traditional folk/rock standards.  Piano and guitar is still present, but are augmented by careful touches of strings and horns (as in the sublime “Tarifa”) or the occasional use of a drum machine or other programming (“Our Love” bears more than a passing resemblance to a Beach House song with the minimalist programming and soft female vocal).  The single “Taking Chances” makes use of the latter, building on a programmed drum beat with mellow keyboard, with the guitar saved for accented hits during the chorus.

Still, the selling point remains Van Etten’s uniquely beautiful voice and her personal songwriting.  The album is often dark, though there are moments of black humor that provide a bit of levity, as seen in the album closer “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”, where she stretches lines like “People say I’m a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?  I washed your dishes then I shit in your bathroom” out to great effect.  Even so, the saddest and bitterest songs leave the greatest impression, with the effects of “Your Love Is Killing Me”, “I Know”, and “You Know Me Well” lasting long after the album is over.  Are We There doesn’t have the same evenhanded flow as Tramp, but the peaks are often higher.

And you have to appreciate an artist that provides a list of “Recommended Listening”, and includes the likes of The War On Drugs, Suicide, Spiritualized, Kurt Vile, and The Men, among several others.  Thanks Sharon, now I have additional homework to do.