REVIEW: Sharon Van Etten - "Tramp" (Deluxe Edition)

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The release of Sharon Van Etten's deluxe edition of her 2012 album Tramp allows us to appear timely (at least marginally so) in doing something that we should have done a loooooong time ago:  reviewing this puppy.  So, while this is, ostensibly, the review of the deluxe edition, it should function just as well as a review of the original thing.  The deluxe edition, it should be noted, contains demos of all the songs on Tramp.  The only downfall to this that I can see is that it doesn't include "Life of His Own" from the "Leonard" single (from 2012) nor does it contain "Mike McDermott" from the "Serpents" single, which came out in 2011.  So... minus 5, deluxe edition.

Within the career trajectories of up-and-coming indie artists, perhaps no sonic jump has seemed bigger than Sharon Van Etten's.  From the sparse warbling of her acoustic gem of  2010, Because I Was in Love, to last year's aptly titled rocker release, Epic, it seemed that Van Etten had turned over a new continent, not just a new leaf. Upon the release of her third record in three years, Tramp, it seemed that Van Etten was continuing to build on Epic's aftereffects.  A first listen through the album drops it into the same general sonic category as the one preceding it; forceful, guitar-driven tunes croon to life in Van Etten's haunting vocals.  Take a few more steps though, a few more listens, and something distinctly different begins to emerge.  Could it be possible that Epic wasn't the big sonic shift that we thought it was?  Could it be that Tramp isn't a continuation, but the culmination of and insertion of a female voice into the garage-rock revival that we're seemingly going through?

It's hard not to see that if we've seen growth in indie music over the past few years it has less to do with electronics and more to do with home-spun rock and quirky folk.  While electronics are definitely playing a part, it's hard not to acknowledge that we (thankfully for this guy at least) haven't heard from Girl Talk (okay, so maybe he's more of a DJ, but who doesn't like a Girl Talk bash), that LCD Soundsystem is no more, and the best part of the Dan Deacon record isn't the electronics but the orchestral side.  The retro side of this revival has seen a stronger focus on songwriting, a greater emphasis on instrumental acumen and a back-to-the roots musical resuscitation.  

It's also been pretty heavily male-dominated.  The provocative title of Tramp is at once a retro statement as well as a sort of window into the record's subject matter.  Van Etten's always been tied up in the trappings and pleasures of eros, but this record leans more to the darker side.  The album's first single "Serpents" sums it up pretty nicely:  "You enjoy sucking on dreams / So I will fall asleep with someone other than you."  While on Epic, Van Etten put her vulnerability forward, presenting herself almost as an open wound at times -- see the resplendent "DsharpG" -- there's a cynical, won't-get-fooled-again thread to Tramp.  While folk drives itself on positivism, both politically and romantically, rock-n-roll is a faster incarnation of the blues:  down in the dumps, broke, and cynical.  In this way, Tramp is both a statement and the maturation of Van Etten's catalog.  Of course, rockers aren't the only thing that happen on this record.  Van Etten deftly walks this folk/rock line on tunes like "Leonard" with its slow-climbing build and the throbbing introspection of "All I Want."  It's here that we can contextualize why we're having this garage-rock thing happen and how Tramp fits in.  If we take it that indie is something that ideologically runs counter to the mainstream, then musically it has to do the same. Necessities of making a living these days don't allow for the same kind of "sold out" talk that permeated the scenes of the 80s and 90s.

Musicians are finding new ways of staying true to ideology while navigating a post-recession economy and a country that could give a shit about the arts.  So, while the glitz and glam is hyped to us on TV and music becomes a sweltering melange of chirps and radio-ready MOR singles, garage rock provides a way for the elemental forces of music to reinstate themselves.  It's the three-chords and the truth of our current age. Musical exceptionalism and complexity aren't done for their own sake, but as antidotes to the filtering, processing, and infinite fingers of computers and the digital age.  While there might be a musical chasm between Van Etten and the wunderkind of the moment, Ty Segall, there is one core truth -- both are making elemental music and, in this country at least, that means garage.

Since she burst onto the scene with Because I Was in Love, it's been undeniable that Van Etten has one of the purest voices working today.  What has changed from Epic to Tramp is the intricate nature of her songs. Layering vocal patterns, instruments, and rhythms, the complexity of Tramp is made possible by the evolution of Van Etten's songwriting as well as her musical partners.  The National's Aaron Dressner co-produced and lent the studio space for Tramp and his fingerprints can be heard all over the record.  Despite the self-portrait of the deluxe edition and the extreme closeup of the original album, this record's brilliance is the result of Van Etten's cadre (including members of The Walkmen, Wye Oak, Thomas Bartlett, Bryce and Aaron Dressner, and Zach Condon).  Condon, of Beirut, lends a rather magical influence to "We Are Fine" in both tone and vocal harmony, taking his turn at the mic as well.  In the richly textured harmony of this track's chorus, the album hits one of its numerous high points.  

Tramp is a coming of age for Van Etten.  Musical complexity fuels her already unique voice and subtle musical understanding.  There is a sense of self-proclamation, an assuredness to this record that all great albums have. Van Etten's got the authority of a master in Tramp.  It's her most unflinching and strongest work to date.  Ironically, it's also what makes Tramp seem like a continuation.  Van Etten's been doing it all along.  So, if there is a sonic shift in Tramp, it comes with the addition of Condon, the Dessners, et al.  They augment, flesh out, and delve deeper into the personal than the personal which Van Etten had shown on her previous albums.  The musical shift here is letting other people inside.  Perhaps that's the wry irony of the title -- there are so many others in Van Etten's personal lyrics that she feels like a "tramp."  Maybe she feels like she's still searching. Whichever way it goes, the ownership is what counts and what makes this record one of the most solid of the year.


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