From one top female artist to another. However, unlike the work of Liz Harris I am completely new to the work of Sharon Van Etten. You see, the usual thing happened with Sharon Van Etten. Loads of hype, possibly over-hype, so my ears shut down and I waited until the initial euphoria died down before diving in to the music. I am of course aware that this record made it on to a load of top lists for 2012 but I have refrained from reading reviews about the record deliberately to afford myself the freedom to form my own opinion. And if I’m honest as I listened to ‘Warsaw’ for the first time I was interested but not completely captivated. Opening songs on a record have the power to pull you in or shut you down and ‘Warsaw’ teetered on the brink of closing me down. But I let it ride and ‘Give Out’ started. Now, if tracks have the power to close your brain down they also have the power to completely capture your attention and ‘Give Out’ is simply spell bindingly beautiful. There is nothing fancy; simple acoustic guitar, percussion and delicate instrumentation. But that vocal. WOW. From then on I knew I was going to be sucked in by the record and I was.
And I think that is the secret to what makes this album special; the vocal. I have always had issues about female singer-songwriters. (I guess the same issue applies to male singer-songwriters actually). What I mean is that what I need for that sort of set up to work is something different or unique about the vocal. Anyone can pick up a guitar and write songs but the records and artist that are most affecting for me have a distinct quality in the tone of their voice. It’s actually true of any artist fronted by a female vocal. There needs to be something in the voice to suck me in. Obviously the songs need to be good but I’ve heard lots of good songs in my life with vocals that sounds like it could be anyone. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Matt Berninger, Jeff Tweedy, Mark Linkous, Elliott Smith, Micah P Hinson…all my favourite artists have something about their vocal that speaks to me. Same applies to women; Grouper, Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Sleepingdog, Lotte Kestner – it’s the oddness/uniqueness that compels.
Now I wouldn’t say Sharon Van Etten’s voice is unique but it is odd enough to suck me in, beautiful enough to keep me listening and the double track production on many tracks is a master stroke adding to the power of the vocal. It’s not often that I can pin a whole record to the quality of a vocalist rather than everything that goes with it. But in this case I most certainly can.
I won’t dwell on key tracks or important lyrics just reinforce the power in the voice and the delivery. This record deserves the hype it received. Not for who produced it. Not for who appears on it. Not for anything other than quality songs from a quality vocalist and one I intend to follow with a much keener eye as of now.