Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
Sharon Van Etten and Shearwater at Lee’s Palace in Toronto
Frank YangTwo records is not really a lot of data from which to plot a creative trajectory, but based on Sharon Van Etten’s first couple records, you could make some projections. Her 2009 debut Because I Was In Love was simple and spare, elevated above your standard singer-songwriter fare by Van Etten’s gorgeous bruise of a voice and her correspondingly confessional songwriting; 2010’s mini-album epic showed what she could do with backing players, offering a perfect set of songs that arced from the darkness, both in tone and theme, of “A Crime” to the aching and even hopeful “Love More” in just over half an hour. So when word came that she was working with The National’s Aaron Dessner on her third effort, one could reasonably assume that it would be even more polished – in the best sense of the word – than its predecessors.
Which is why, I think, that it’s taken me longer than expected to wrap my head around Tramp. It’s not immediately more focused than epic, instead retreating back into the sprawl and thematic shadows of Because I Was In Love; the album shifts gears from song to song, for instance bouncing from the rocking “Serpents” through the drifting “Kevin’s” into the sprightly “Leonard” and within the songs, she favours more elliptical than direct melodies. Anyone fearing that Van Etten would be going pop the third time out can rest easy. Once personal expectations are checked in favour of what’s actually been delivered, Tramp affirms itself as a solid showcase of Van Etten’s talents; muscular where strength is called for and gentle when all it needs is to softly support. As a record to break Van Etten out to a broader audience, I still think epic was better suited, but Tramp is clearly doing the job just fine. Lee’s Palace, where she played Tuesday night, is a good deal larger than The Drake which hosted her first/last headlining visit in April 2011, and it was well and truly sold out.
It was gratifying to see that the room was comfortably full for Shearwater, who despite having finally graduated to headliner status for their last visit in April 2010 and having just released their own exceptional record in Animal Joy, were back in the supporting role on this tour. Now I had seen Shearwater a dozen times or so in various incarnations over the years since first seeing them in this very room in May 2005, but had never seen them like this – quite literally. Despite having commented on how the rawness of Animal Joy could be attributed to stripping things down to the core trio of Jonathan Meiburg, Kim Burke and Thor Harris, neither Burke nor Harris were to be seen on this night – instead, Shearwater was Meiburg and four all-new faces; clearly, even long-time fans were going to have to check their expectations.
And even the longest-term Shearwater fan couldn’t have been prepared for what this incarnation of the band would be about. Past writeups of both their albums and live shows inevitably centered around the sense of mystery and atmosphere that they created, led by Meiburg’s soaring vocals. Now, that voice was more banshee than choirboy and the band – all electric guitars, keys and drums – was unrelentingly urgent and visceral. No two ways about it, Shearwater 2012 is a rock band and a great one – “You As You Were” was jaw-dropping and set-closer “Star Of The Age” was stirringly anthemic in a way that the album version only hinted at. The bulk of the nearly hour-long set drew from Animal Joy, but “Rooks” from Rook and “The Snow Leopard” and “Castaways” represented The Golden Archipelago well, coming even more alive with this band configuration. Make no mistake, both Harris and Burke were missed but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine wanting to hear the new songs played any other way than they had. If the night had ended here, it’d have been a triumph.
But it wasn’t the end; this was still Sharon Van Etten’s night, even if her performance was more of a gentle, hour-long come-down following Shearwater’s bracing set. She also fronted a different band from the one she brought through last Spring; Doug Keith remained a fixture on bass but the drummer – whose name eluded me – was new, I think, and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Heather Woods Broderick was definitely new. What remained the same was the disarming charm that Van Etten brought to the stage with her smile and light banter, which helped balance out the emotional weightiness of her material.
With the exception of “Save Yourself” early on, the main set was made up exclusively of Tramp material, with Van Etten resisting requests for “Tornado” to rep Because I Was In Love but she did offer up a searing “Serpents” as a dedication to one audience member, being sure to clarify that “this is not about you but for you”. It has to be said that live, the material hung together better for me than it did on record – the blend of omnichord and harmonium on “Magic Chords” was, well, magical and using a triple guitar setup not for aggression but atmosphere on “I’m Wrong” and allowing that to bloom and gently settle into the set-closing “Joke Or A Lie” was pretty special. For the encore, it as back to the harmonium for a reading of “Love More” that made you really grateful that Broderick and her harmonies were now part of the band and then, to close out on an up note, they invited Shearwater back onstage for a cover of The Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You” that was raucous, sloppy and a great if unexpected way to finish the night.
The National Post also has a review of the show and the Toronto media welcomed Van Etten to town with interviews in Chart, The Toronto Standard, The Grid, The National Post, The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Toro, and NOW and out of town, The Boston Phoenix says hello. Meanwhile, Blurt has a feature on Shearwater and Meiburg gives The Montreal Gazette a list of what he’s listening to these days and pens an essay on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock for adequacy.net.
Photos: Sharon Van Etten, Shearwater @ Lee’s Palace – February 21, 2012
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “Serpents”
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “Love More”
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “Don’t Do It”
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “I Couldn’t Save You”
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “For You”
MP3: Sharon Van Etten – “Consolation Prize”
MP3: Shearwater – “You As You Were”
MP3: Shearwater – “Breaking The Yearlings”
MP3: Shearwater – “Black Eyes”
MP3: Shearwater – “God Made Me”
MP3: Shearwater – “Castaways”
MP3: Shearwater – “South Col”
MP3: Shearwater – “The Snow Leopard”
MP3: Shearwater – “Rooks”
MP3: Shearwater – “Red Sea, Black Sea”
MP3: Shearwater – “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five”
MP3: Shearwater – “White Waves”
MP3: Shearwater – “Whipping Boy”
Video: Sharon Van Etten – “For You”
Video: Shearwater – “Breaking The Yearlings”
Video: Grouplove – “Colours”
Mark Lanegan has taken a break from being a grim, gravelly voice for hire to release a new solo record in Blues Funeral that’s, well, probably grim and gravelly. He and band will be taking it on tour and stop in at The Mod Club on May 15, tickets $15 in advance, and there’s features at The Quietus and Exclaim.
tUnE-yArDs is pretty sure people are still discovering and being wowed by last year’s WHOKILL, and so she’s going to give them another chance to hear it live – Toronto gets its third show for the album on August 1 at The Phoenix, tickets $20.
Bon Iver has released a full 25-minute video session recorded for their European label wherein Justin Vernon and Sean Carey do Bon Iver-y things. And incidentally, Carey will release a new EP entitled Hoyas on May 8; his 2010 solo debut All We Grow was a gem, so if you dig what he does in the session, check his work out.
Video: Bon Iver / 4AD Sessions
Rolling Stone reports that the long-rumoured Mermaid Avenue, Vol III from Billy Bragg and Wilco will finally be coming out this year, just in time for the centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. It’ll be available either as part of the four-disc Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions with the first two albums and the Man In The Sand documentary film or on its own. More details on the release are available at Billy Bragg’s blog.
Stream: M. Ward – “Primitive Girl”
James Mercer of The Shins talks to Exclaim about their new album Port Of Morrow, due out March 20. The first video from said record was released a couple days ago and you can finally watch it online, after originally only being available as an iTunes download – free, sure, but annoying and I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come, PR-speaking.
Video: The Shins – “Simple Song”