February Music Capsule Reviews

10 Mar

Sharon Van Etten

 

Tennis
Young & Old

Grade: B+

 


Coming into their second record with considerable buzz, Tennis, a wife and husband band who in their first record sauntered through sunny languid songs about their romance trade that relaxed sound for something more substantive and insightful, not to mention more traditionally melodic.
Their debut ‘Cape Dory’ was a critical favorite but was lacking something tuneful. It was pleasant and an easy, breezy listen but I never felt it had much to say. I think they have more to say here and it comes across with better, catchier and more entertaining songs.

Opener ‘It All Feels the Same’ kicks things off with a solid rock chord, lead single ‘Origins’ has a certain doo wop charm with a big chorus and ‘My Better Self’ hits a contemplative note with a certain level of panache. ‘Traveling’ keeps things going by hinting back at their prior records tone but I will say the record falls off a bit from there but never stops being fairly entertaining with only ‘Take Me to Heaven’ standing out as above average.

It’s definitely frontloaded but I think it’s a solid step forward for a band that will hopefully keep growing into one to continue watching for some time.

Hospitality
Hospitality

Grade: A

Hitting all the right twee indie pop notes, Hospitality’s debut self titled LP is catchy, engaging and probably one of my favorite records of the year thus far. It’s hard to stop listening to it – I tend to be caught up in a groove of listening to it twice or three times if I listen to it once.

This is a record that sucks you in and never really lets go – the worst tracks here have a lot to recommend, from the slow building ‘Julie’ which, the longest track here at four and half minutes, takes it’s time but is as engaging as a lot of bands better work to ‘Aragonaut’ which I’ve played plenty of times and couldn’t really tell you what it’s about other than having a fun hook and catchy chorus.

But then there is the standouts – ‘Eight Avenue’ estimates something in the range of classic Belle & Sebastian and hits the note with undue grace, ‘Sleepver’ manages to be just a bit touching while staying light and sunny, ‘Liberal Arts’ has a lot of satirical bite and then the standout among standouts is ‘Friends of Friends’, which is easily the catchiest thing I’ve heard this year and a highlight on a record full of things to recommend, with a full, fun chorus and a tremendous swagger to it.

Weighing in at just over a half hour, it never overstays it’s welcome one bit and recalls both the early Belle & Sebastian and a more twee, lady fronted early Weezer-esque sound. The first thing it makes me think of, honestly, is the straight-forward fun of The Blue Album back in the mid-90s.

If you couldn’t tell, I quite like this record.

Shearwater
Animal Joy

Grade: B-

Shearwater is a band that I have a complicated relationship with. They’re a spinoff of a longtime favorite of mine, Okkervil River, and their early records, still intertwined with the frontman of that band Will Sheff are records that I enjoy quite a bit. Their last three records, prior to Animal Joy were a ‘trilogy’ about, well, I’m not entirely sure – birds, it would seem?

Shearwater, especially in their last three records have been a very niche project – Jonathan Meiburg, the frontman has a falsetto that takes some getting used to in spite of being very pretty and lyrically they can be a bit hard to decifer, sometimes just because Jonathan, with a PHD is the study of birds, tends to have a lot to say about birds, which honestly isn’t a subject that I think most people can relate terribly to and combined with a very orchestrated indie classical influenced sound thus at best the easiest thing to say about most Shearwater music is that it’s ‘pretty’.

With ‘Animal Joy’, however, they take a step forward, into ground slightly more personal and with a bit more of a rock influence showing. It’s not a full step forward – the things that kept many people from latching on in the past are still present but are easily toned down a notch and there are a few standout songs here – the title track, ‘Breaking the Yearlings’ and a slow methodical climb in ‘Dread Sovereign’ lead things off well and it has a consistent, interesting sound to it that continues through the record.

It seems to sacrifice some of the genuine beauty of previous records to look at new landscapes (and to take a break from singing so much about, say, landscapes) and while it thus doesn’t hit quite the highest notes of their catalogue it’s both their most accessible record and probably a move in a direction that if they can find a way to tap further into will make them a more formidable force going forward and bode well for their ability to do something different and exciting in the future.

Sharon Van Etten
Tramp

Grade: A-


Sharon Van Etten’s public profile has been rapidly on the rise for the past few years. Her first record ‘Because I Was in Love’ was beautiful and sad and caught the eye of several people but never really broke through to the larger public. Her second record ‘Epic’ pushed her further into something more resembling standard singer-songwriter territory with a fuller sound and caught the attention of not only a bit larger audience but peers such as Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame), who covered it’s highlight track ‘Love More’, as well as fellow Brooklynites The Antlers (who had her provide lead vocals on one of the tracks on their breakthrough LP ‘Hospice’) and The National, who had Sharon guest on recent track ‘Thought You Could Wait’ and a member of whom, Bryce Dressner, provides production for ‘Tramp’

Here Sharon opens herself up to even more complex orchestration without really comprimising her personal tone that shone so bright on her first two records. The atmosphere of something like ‘Give Out’ add to the cathartic notion of the song in a way that never cuts into the appeal of it. Guests from bands such as The Walkmen and Beirut compliment their respective tracks with appealing duets. A standout is the first single ‘Serpents’ which is the first time Sharon has fully done a song that fits comfortably into the category of a ‘rock song’ – and it works rather well and forcefully.

I wouldn’t argue that this is a better record than her previous two, both of which have fairly immense charms, but it is on par and another move forward for an artist who seems to have, in the course of a three year career, be getting better and better as an artist – it is a move toward a more fully realized sound and the songwriting continues to get better and more complex. It feels like a real coming out party for an artist who has been moving further and further on to the radar of the mainstream of indie rock stardom and who’s star will likely be shinning only brighter in the future.

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball
Grade: C+

This is, in my estimation, the best standard issue Bruce Springsteen record (which is to say, excepting projects like ‘The Seger Sessions’ or ‘Devil in the Dust’) in several years. That is, however, rather faint praise, considering ‘Magic’ felt like was warmed over leftovers from his early 90s shmaltzy period and ‘The Rising’ was tremendously over-rated and rode on a sentimentality borrowed from the sad events that surrounded it in late 2001.

This, however, is Springsteen going back to his roots as American anthemist – aiming for something in the vein of either classic ‘Born’ record and sometimes pulling it off, albiet never as well as one might hope. It can tend to be heavy handed and a bit broad lyrically and it doesn’t have the same charisma that his earlier recordings have that seem to be able to push those sorts of concepts into something more palpable.

All that being said – it’s consistently decent and has it’s moments of Springsteen-ian uplift, although they’re somewhat fleeting. It’s built around what ends up being a mixed bag of folksier elements and stadium swagger, the latter of which might just be the reality of needing to work in a 2012 Bruce Springsteen tour environment but which takes several of these songs down a notch.

If this was a little more focused and able to tone itself down it could have been a very good record. As it is, it tends to be something more in the range of ‘acceptable’ and given the last ten years of Springsteen in the studio, well, that’s something I’ll accept, I suppose.

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