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“DD Review: Sharon Van Etten – (it was) because i was in love.”

Score: 4/10

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For some reason, overwhelmingly with New York’s folkiest siren Sharon Van Etten, I find it impossible to think of her and divorce my reasoning from the overall criticism of her work. It could be because the music she is making is so decidedly non-anthemic. As far as the scant times in which I’ve ever heard her music in a public place go, it was “One Day” off the initial EP epic in this now-defunct cafe in downtown South Bend, Indiana. It was appropriate for that setting, probably too languid for a grocery store [1], even being as it was a cloudy day. Cafes perfectly potentiate, if not all-out sadness, then at very least reflection and meditation — the individual not immediately obligated into action or intensity. With this being the case, generally, the type of people who pay any attention to Sharon Van Etten are more likely to be loners, in some regard, and are more likely to engage in reading and writing, in any sphere or on any level (or in any cafe).
To be brief and frank: 2010’s epic all but changed my life. The exact music it reminded me of was R.E.M.’s 1998 album Up: the sort of tense, walking on eggshells brand of pastoral pop (Van Etten being ironically the more guitar-oriented and less textural to the Georgia trio there) which is even more full of feeling than, say, the average record store obsessor. And indeed, it is great record store music. I could perfectly see it soundtracking Chicago’s Reckless Records on Milwaukee Ave. and generating a lot of questions as to who it was. It’s mellow and stately, and so not too intense for a situation involving a lot of people, and especially it’s perfect for the current time of year we’re now in, when electric lights play an ebullient part in all of our lives. Still, Van Etten should be commended for always having existed as something wholly human and organic, to be juxtaposed favorably against any snap of technology one might care to cite.
I must once again thank the great NPR for making this album available prior to its official release date, as well as thanking the artist herself. (it was) because i was in love is Van Etten’s first LP release on San Francisco label Language of Stone.
One thing certain about (it was) because i was in love that’s apparent at least by midway through the second track is that Van Etten has issued a stark moderation on 2014’s full-bodied, noisy Are We There: in love is a statement of bare, desolate folk probably as scaled-back Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
And look, let’s just say I’m closer to Nebraska than to New York in both spatiality and in spirit. I have no idea the surrounding Big Apple buzz that swarms Van Etten in the days leading up to this release: the expectations, the stipulations, the stigmas. The interviews with David Byrne and St. Vincent before Love This Giant’s come-up were enough to nauseate me permanently before the conversations of that city (and Rob Sheffield’s tautologically absurd arguments about Bowie don’t help either).
In other words, I do not know what would compel Miss Van Etten to churn out such a buttery album of absolute, obstinate sparseness and instrumental scarcity. One theory is that in love is meant to fill some sort of theremin quota [2] in New York music and surely that seems as valid as any. In a year filled with bona fide jazz, dark, earth-shifting IDM and possibly our first ever swatch of hip-hop-blues-metal [3], Van Etten’s stubborn denizenship on this depressing, gentle folk seems like sort of an insult. Actually, it’s sort of like she’s testing the world to see if anybody will even listen to this ridiculously somber project [4].
It seems the result of gentrification, or maybe like, the result of the reaction to gentrification, the precipitation of which probably came via Amanda Petrusich’s It Still Moves, which energetically pursued in travelogue music which was completely organic and not electronic at all (“Americana” was her preferred term). In other words, it’s as fake as Velveeta cheese, and to be honest had I known Van Etten were a New Yorker when I first heard epic I’d almost certainly have developed a stick in my craw about it at least a little bit — because it’s not BUSY like quintessential New York music like say hip-hop, the Dirty Projectors, Battles, Animal Collective or tUnE-yArDs.
Some of these songs have intricate structures and chord progressions, which make them slightly refreshing listens, like “For You” and “I Fold.” “Consolation Prize,” however, is a song that basically just sucks, despite its somewhat creative premise (being someone’s “consolation prize”), and the lyrics disjointed and nonsensical. What we have here is fragments of songs, pasted together unartistically. Plus, I’m sorry, but I just do not have sympathy for Sharon Van Etten’s love life. No one would. This is not world-reaching, sophisticated music the way epic and Tramp were — it does not speak for the everyman, and the apparent umbrage Van Etten feels before people even listening to her in the first place would explain that tired, mucky old vocal style she keeps on using, despite the fact that her voice sounds nasal and annoying. The guitar sound here is good, but this lends itself all the less to any live show value, just establishing a pressure to measure up to the studio sound, which she definitely better do if she wants to get many genuine cheers. But if she didn’t do a tour, or if she called in sick from it, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. She’s clearly pretty sick of the world, no longer in love as the evidence says.
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[1] Whereas for whatever reason Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again” has enough precocious vacuumed bite to soundtrack a trip to Whole Foods. I couldn’t tell you why.
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[2] If you want to see Brooklyners get just slightly high on themselves, just mention this self-powered accordion-resembling instrument that emits that barely noticeable tone similar to a thinner, less vibrating Hammond Organ. They’re famous for staging theremin jam sessions in parks, apparently.
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[3] That would of course be courtesy of the great Zeal & Ardor.
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[4] By the way, what the he** would Sharon Van Etten have to be sad about… she’s a beautiful, talented and famous indie rocker, although her nerdy drawl can get a little annoying.

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