Sharon Van Etten
Ba Da Bing Records
Remember the first time you heard Neko Case sing? Or Patty Griffin? Or Erika Wennerstrom?
Brace yourself for Sharon Van Etten's big, powerful, unforced voice, one of the finest to come along in years. And, on her new album, it's matched only by her scorched-earth lyrics.
If last year's stark, acoustic “Because I Was in Love” was her breakup album, then the full-band “Epic” is her “I didn't need you anyway” album.
In just 32 minutes, the seven-song tour de force packs an emotionally operatic punch.
”Just like everyone else/ You're just like everyone else,” she sings over a mournful pedal steel in slowly rocking “Save Yourself.”
”To say the things I want to say to you would be a crime,” she fumes in the opener, which ends with her repeating, ”Never let myself love like that again.”
A harmonium and ghostly chorus groans through the dirgy “DsharpG,” and “Love More,” while “Don't Do It” smolders on for more than five minutes, building slowly to its, ”I wish I could make you right” conclusion. The highlight comes with the jangly, hook-filled and confident “One Day.”
As pained as these lyrics are, and there's plenty of pain here, these are not the songs of a fragile victim. Van Etten's next boyfriend better wear a cup.
In Kelley Stoltz's head, it's still 1970. The Beatles, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, even Sammy Johns and Chad and Jeremy, are alive and well.
The longtime San Francisco underground artist has created a separate genre for himself, a world of luxuriant melodies that unfurl patiently like a golden syrupy sunrise.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the new album's two loveliest tracks, “August” and the slightly more uptempo, Paul McCartney-esque “Pinecone.”
Stoltz's only trouble is that he's no McCartney or Lennon when it comes to lyrics or rock craft. There's too many lazy lines like, ”I was the earth/ You were the sky/ Yeah, yeah, yeah,” which works if you've got the pop-perfect “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to support it.
Still, there's plenty to like about the new tracks, especially Stoltz's taste for jangly surf songs like “Keeping the Flame” and the grinding Velvet Underground groove of “I Remember You Were Wild.”
The new album rocks a little harder than past efforts, and it's nice to hear Stoltz stretch himself a little, at least sonically. Maybe his tiny, basement production world is expanding. Can't wait to see what's next.
Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen
“For The Ghosts Within”
You'd have to either be really good to attempt a fresh cover of the jazz standard “Round Midnigh,” or really crazy.
English prog-rock pioneer Robert Wyatt, who fronts this trio, is a lot of both. The Soft Machine founder is a remarkable singer and a revolutionary musical experimentalists and collaborator.
But, with “Round Midnight,” he's already in line behind Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Billie, Sonny, Ella, Ellington, Louis and about 200 others. And then there's Thelonious Monk, who wrote it.
So, what does the great vocalist do? He whistles the famous melody. And, when the trio covers the nearly as familiar “In a Sentimental Mood,” Wyatt hums.
And, like nearly everything Wyatt touches, in its own weird way, it totally works.
Backed by saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, violinist Ros Stephen and the Sigamos String Quartet, the songs are by turn lush, angular, bright and heavy, a mix of jazz, pop and world rhythms and always, always, interesting.
The trio also covers Johnny Mercer's “Laura” and reworks Wyatt's own nearly 40-year-old “Maryan.” And, he sings plenty, the best of the set a languid, straight-up take on Louis Armstrong's signature “It's a Wonderful World.”