IF HANDLED PROPERLY, honey and water will alchemize into spontaneously fermented mead. Oxygen will seep slowly into the cask and with it, wild yeasts and other microorganisms carousing ar- ound our homes. This basic mixture needs only a mild stirring routine, a warm nook, and enough idle time to flourish before it transforms into something intoxicating. Such a process comes to mind when considering Sharon Van Etten's fully formed sophomore release, Epic, and the simple ingredients—a guitar and a sweet howl—with which she first started on last year's Because I Was In Love.
What began as a typical bedroom folk project—demarcated by the metallic echoes heard with each chord change and an eerie separation between lead and back-up vocal tracks—has begun to fester into a formidable rock outfit. And it's clear that in the time spent between recordings, the Brooklyn-based Van Etten was steeped in her honest songwriting and followed her 2009 debut with an album that goes down with staggering ease.
An assertion at best, Epic's opening track, "A Crime," wastes no time in establishing Van Etten's transformation. Perhaps it is the immediacy of the punch packed by her guitar, blooming in full strum, where a gentle succession of plucks might have been more characteristic. Or maybe, it's the ragged way in which she fashions a relative growl for the ever-earnest lyrics, "Seduce me with your charms/until I'm drunk on them/Go home and drink in bed/and never let myself/be in love like that again," whereas before, she might have grappled more tenderly with her vulnerability.
Whatever it is, there is an evident bulk that shines through, as well as a penchant for the golden days of Neil Young's Harvest; in fact, there is a sound bite at the very end, after "A Crime" has fully phased out, that features a pedal steel swagger reminiscent of that album's stylings. And interestingly, all of this is conveyed without even showcasing the band that Van Etten has assembled.
"I'm touring with a bassist and a drummer now who are good friends. Which is helpful, because they're locked in as a rhythm section. And it's good to know there are people playing with me that are behind what I'm doing—it helps me be more confident up there, you know?" says Van Etten of her recently acquired touring companions.
Though this is not the first time she'll be sharing the stage—Van Etten has collaborated with other musicians, most recently Megafaun and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, to interpret songs from Alan Lomax's Sounds of the South and perform them at a historic church in Durham, North Carolina (the live recording of the performance is due out sometime next year). "They [Megafaun, Vernon] are the kind of people that do what they say they will. It was an amazing experience," explains Van Etten.
Regardless of her new approach, the rough edges of Van Etten's repertoire remain unfinished: Each constructed song is easily traced back to a pile of raw material. There are still introspective moments (see: "Love More," drowned with whirring harmonium) and though the songs are not quite as intimate, they don't feel at all diluted. And so it goes to show that sometimes it's best to just sit and wait for the next breath to come and fill those empty spaces.