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Dusdin Condren/Courtesy of the artist

On the surface, Sharon Van Etten‘s new album, Tramp, has a fitting title. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter’s third album—released earlier this month via Jagjaguwar—reflects the lifestyle she lead for the 14 months it took her write and record it. During that time, she slept on couches, kept all of her belongings in her car, and recorded in the home studio of The National’s Aaron Dessner; the result is an edgy, ragged album tougher than her break out, 2009’s Because I Was In Love, and more stylistically complicated than her 2010 follow-up, Epic. Yet despite Tramp‘s raw, road-weary confidence and Van Etten’s self-described homelessness, there is something deeply contradictory about the title.

“Contradictory” isn’t always a negative, especially in this case. Tramp has received glowing reviews across the blogosphere. It is, in fact, a stunning album that features a lot of impressive talent (including Beirut’s Zach Codon, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick). It also doesn’t hurt that Van Etten now plays with a full band on a permanent basis. She has described her songwriting process as hearing two sets of notes in her head—and keyboardist/vocalist Heather Woods Broderick is an excellent choice to carry the second set of notes. Woods Broderick’s higher, softer voice acts as a foil to Van Etten’s rapsy aesthetic as they harmonize through entire songs. Live, Van Etten and Woods Broderick’s harmonies were the high points of the set, which Van Etten acknowledged on stage. After introducing the members of her band, Van Etten reflected aloud, “I’m a lucky woman to have them.”

Yet Van Etten also asserted herself as an independent woman multiple times during the show and the encore. After one such assertion, Woods Broderick actually laughed; though she didn’t elaborate on what she thought was funny, it could have easily been Van Etten’s claim. And that’s where the contradiction at the heart of Tramp lies. After all, there is an inherent dependency in the transient couch-surfing lifestyle—namely, a reliance on friends with couches. That same dependence can also be found in the construction and execution of the songs on the album. (For example, even the sparsest tracks were engineered by Aaron Dessner.) Given the album’s backstory, it’s fair to assume that Tramp couldn’t have happened in the first place without Van Etten’s dependence on others. The contradiction between dependence and independence is what Tramp is all about. The tension gives the album texture and conflict, and unites the tracks—not only stylistically, but also lyrically. On Tramp, Van Etten’s protagonists are pulled between the painful, dependent relationships that fuel the songs and the lonely process of moving on. An obvious example can be found in the lyrics of “Serpents”, which depict an abusive relationship. In the chorus, the protagonist doesn’t want to change her mind “this time” after acknowledging her lover’s crimes.

As Van Etten harmonized with Woods Broderick, sang against two guitars, and literally rocked out with a full band, she reminded us that she is a talented collaborator. That’s not to knock her credibility as a solo artist; her solo debut is what garnered the attention of high-profile artists from Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio to David Bowie, and demonstrated that her voice and acoustic guitar make a lovely pair. Yet Van Etten’s distinct vocals seemed to demand more, and rose to the occasion on the Antler’s 2009 Hospice and in a soundtrack collaboration with The National for the film Win Win. On Tramp and in live shows with her band, Van Etten strikes a chord that can hold its own against her powerful vocals. She’s not the disheveled “tramp” that glares out from the album cover, but instead a vagabond, relying on the kindness of others and turning that vulnerability into something uniquely her own. –Naomi Shavin

Set List:

1.???????Warsaw
2.???????Serpents
3.???????Give Out
4.???????Kevin’s
5.???????Leonard
6.???????In Line
7.???????All I Can
8.???????Joke Or a Lie

Encore:
1. “Life of His Own”

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