It may come as no surprise that The Spin is ambivalent about pop music's confessional mode. Being fans of pop's more formalist offerings, we certainly respect the way singer-songwriters bare their bruised and aching hearts, but it could be that confessional lyrics are best disguised in musical structures that question the validity of self-absorption. So when we say that former Murfreesboro resident Sharon Van Etten's new, critically acclaimed full-length, Are We There, exemplifies everything great about confessional pop, it's a tribute to her craftsmanship and a nod to the way she makes compelling art out of her angst.
Opening Van Etten's show at Exit/In with a taut half-hour set, Texas-born singer Jana Hunter proved herself as adept as the night's headliner at goosing the singer-songwriter mode. She drolly introduced her first song, "Maneater," as "something by a band called Hall and Oates," and her take on the well-known 1982 confessional pop tune included pre-recorded drums-and-bass parts and some attractively atonal guitar playing. Hunter, who has recorded and toured with Ray Raposa's lo-fi folk ensemble Castanets and currently works with her band, Lower Dens, continued in that vein throughout her set. One tune found Hunter singing, "I was living like an animal," while others worked off stomping patterns that contrasted with keyboard parts that subdivided the beat into triplets. Her vocals seemed diffident at first, but she demonstrated a knack for unobtrusively melismatic phrasing. She projected a calm, cool emotionalism, and some of her songs — she said her new material is slated for a forthcoming Lower Dens project — had an appealing post-'80s vibe.
Looking both energized and thoughtful, Van Etten — now a resident of New York City — made her entrance to a packed house of fans who seemed ready to receive her tales of love's messy vicissitudes. With a crack band that included the superb keyboardist and vocalist Heather Woods Broderick, Van Etten played songs from Are We There with a combination of pop formalism and singer-songwriter expressiveness. Switching from her Guild acoustic guitar to keyboards on "Taking Chances," Van Etten harmonized with Broderick, whose contributions helped define the night's music. If Broderick's self-possession and professionalism complemented Van Etten's equally professional but somewhat more effusive demeanor, Van Etten's band played the Are We There songs like a group who had, indeed, gotten to their destination in fine style. Drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Brad Cook finessed Van Etten's deceptively tricky songs, and effortlessly switched from 4/4 to 6/8 time.
Van Etten's knack for reworking pop-song basics came through on a fine rendition of "Tarifa," from her latest record. Working off a familiar-sounding '50s-style chord progression, the song exudes uncomfortable self-knowledge: "I can't remember anything at all," Van Etten sang. She delivered the lovely "Nothing Will Change" with sublime confidence, and reached back to her 2010 Epic for "Save Yourself," a song The Spin finds particularly well-crafted.
With Broderick adding unison and harmony vocals, the band created a solid foundation for Van Etten's songs. Guitarist Doug Keith provided tactful support for Van Etten's vision, and the singer proved herself a consummate stage performer. As the set progressed, she took time to acknowledge her time in Tennessee and the way her well-publicized travails gave her the impetus to reinvent herself on Are We There and 2012's Tramp. "Coming back to Tennessee is always a little bittersweet," she told her adoring audience. "It's kind of a love-hate thing."
Indeed, Van Etten's songs have a lot of that bittersweet, love-hate thing going for them. But as we noted earlier, what makes Van Etten a major artist is the way she seems to respect the usages of pop music, and thus her audience's expectations. If she is in the line of Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Beth Orton and Cat Power — just to name a few equally accomplished singer-songwriters whose lyrics often address life's darker side — Van Etten makes music that seems original even when it recycles pop and rock basics. Her encore included a spare, beautiful take on "I Know" from the new record, as well as "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," which she introduced as her "lighthearted" number. Like all of Van Etten's new music, it had gravitas, but there was nevertheless something ebullient about her confessionalism.
The Spin has seen Elvis Costello perform as many things over the years: the seething, syllable-spitting frontman of a tightly wound unit called The Attractions, one sweltering night in 1984 at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym; the expansive focal point of a country-rock outfit called The Confederates, consisting of former Elvis 1.0 sidemen and early producer Nick Lowe, again at Memorial in 1986; an amusingly seedy game-show host playing songs off an enormous spinning wheel some 25 years later on the stage of the Ryman. But over the course of nearly a dozen shows in 30 years, there are two things we've never seen Costello be: solo for the length of a concert, and disengaged. Scratch one of those off the list.
All those earlier guises (or variations thereof) put in appearances Saturday night as Costello ransacked one of rock's most voluminous catalogs at the Ryman, a stage that ought to award him a plaque at this juncture. If Costello's 29-song stand amounted to a one-man Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, drawing upon material as far back as predating 1977's My Aim Is True and as freshly composed as two weeks ago, it was hardly a docent's tour. Rather than fall back on the usual and-then-I-wrote-"Less Than Zero" formula for such occasions — and frankly, we'd settle for that, too — he turned the night into a musical reclamation project, eschewing obvious hits for less-familiar stunners culled from across his career.
That meant, as a gangster-hatted Costello took the stage, that if you heard a song from the stellar proto-Americana King of America album, you wouldn't get an expected favorite like "Brilliant Mistake" or "American Without Tears." Instead, he set the tone for the night with the lesser-known but riveting "Jack of All Parades," brandishing its chorus "To be the love of one true heart / Or the jack of all parades" like a statement of long-tail career purpose. Similarly, when he followed with a selection from 1979's beloved Get Happy, he didn't reach for "I Can't Stand up for Falling Down" or other concert staples: He dusted off one of that joyously overstuffed record's finest deep cuts, the Motown rave-up "King Horse," evoking the Attractions' busy arrangement with a fanfare of percussive strumming.
The effect was that when he indeed played the hits — a "Veronica" that remained urgent even with the singer cannily protecting his upper register, a "Watch Your Step" dripping with held-back menace — they sounded excitingly unfamiliar and new in context. Conversely, newer songs such as "Come the Meantime," "Church Underground" and "Ascension Day" took on a drama that sharpened their already barbed hooks. They also stood out in a way that's often difficult among one of Costello's periodic bombardments of 15 songs in a batch — these relatively little-known cuts provoked huge crowd responses.
Costello came across not so much as the "man out of time" from one of his best songs but a man willing to stake his work against any test time cares to administer. That was clear from the juxtaposition of two fine songs from his pre-stardom Honky Tonk Demos days — the early "Lip Service" warm-up "Cheap Reward" and the elegantly bilious ballad "Poison Moon" — with a live performance of the tune he unveiled recently subbing for Lana del Ray on David Letterman. Titled "The Last Year of My Youth" and pointedly written as Costello's 60th birthday nears, it's an urbane, curdled ballad made all the more edgily wistful by the singer's jabbing electric accompaniment. Miraculously, the show only got better from there. Adjusting his hat to a rakish angle, Costello settled into a chair as his own special guest at center stage, then reminisced about the follies and failures of his early gigs before launching into the late-'70s B-side "Ghost Train." The set proper closed with a pindrop-hushed "Alison" and a piercing reading of the late Jesse Winchester's "Quiet About It," before Costello emerged for the first encore with Megan and Rebecca Lovell from opening act Larkin Poe. As openers, the Atlanta-based sisters delivered a promising set of swampy Southern gothic folk highlighted by sinuous rhythms, Megan's razorwire leads on resonator guitar, and their otherworldly harmonies.
With Costello, however, the siblings coalesced into a unit that occasionally sounded something like a front-porch string band offset by celestial Beach Boys vocals and stinging David Lindley-esque slide work. That was as gorgeous as it sounds on covers of The Byrds' "Goin' Back" (sung in honor of its recently deceased co-writer, the great Gerry Goffin), Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died" and Little Feat's "Long Distance Love"; it was prettier still on Costello's own "Love Field" and "Hoover Factory," as arrestingly spacy and weird as ever.
The resulting ovation brought Costello back for one more encore: at the keyboard for "Shipbuilding," as dreamily devastating an indictment of war as economic recovery as it was in the days of the Falkland Islands, then finally closing with "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding." His fervently unironic reading of Nick Lowe's parodic plunge into hippie-dippie earnestness remains as affecting as ever, but the concert hit its emotional peak just moments before, after an engrossing long monologue about the economic woes that put Costello's grandfather out of work as talkies came into fashion. That led into a spellbinding reading of one of his best songs of recent years, the Thompson-like "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a snapshot of hard times that's almost cinematic in its imagery of desolation. At the song's climax, the singer stepped away from the mic, swaggered to the apron with his guitar silent, and began to sing the old Depression-era plaint "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Hitting the last high note like an air-raid siren, he lifted an accusatory finger to the crowd and let the question reverberate as the room erupted. Even solo, Elvis Costello is a force of 10.
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Damn Sean! Brutal.... Might wanna watch out for Nate around town. Haha. Shit! -Jaren