Sharon Van Etten
(Rough Trade *** 1/2)
Back in 2010, Sharon Van Etten was finding her way as a solo artist, working as an intern for Brooklyn’s Ba Da Bing records and recording epic at Miner Street Recordings in Fishtown.
Working with producer Brian McTear and A-list Philly musicians such as Dave Hartley of the War On Drugs, Brian Christinzio of BC Camplight, and Meg Baird of Espers, she used her fulsome voice to fill up songs of openhearted possibility and thwarted romance. The album peaked with the devastating “Save Yourself” and heartsick “Love More,” the subject of one of the first episodes of McTear’s nonprofit series Weathervane Music.
Now, epic feels like a classic. And Van Etten — whose recent triumphs include 2019′s Remind Me Tomorrow, and joining Fountains of Wayne for a tribute last year to the late Adam Schlesinger — is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The original set has been reissued, and the package is juiced with a second volume that features Van Etten’s admirers covering her songs. It’s an impressive list, starting with Big Red Machine (recent Taylor Swift collaborators Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) who dive into the strummy “A Crime.” Also here are Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, the British post-punk band IDLES, and Philadelphia indie auteur Shamir.
It’s a model mini-tribute, with contributors paying homage while delivering distinct versions. Standouts include Shamir’s transformation of “Dsharpg” into a fully realized pop song, Williams’ drawing out “Save Yourself” into an accusatory blues, and Courtney Barnett and Vagabon turning up the volume on “Don’t Do It” as a ragged Neil Young-style jam.
— Dan DeLuca
‘Til We Meet Again
(Blue Note ***)
Norah Jones has dipped into many genres during her career. She’s played electric guitar in Puss N Boots, done an Everly Brothers tribute album with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (2013′s Foreverly), and sung with the Foo Fighters, Outkast, Belle and Sebastian, Willie Nelson, and many others (compiled on 2019′s … Featuring Norah Jones).
On ‘Til We Meet Again, her first live album, Jones focuses on the jazz-pop sweet spot that made her famous. It’s a lovely, comforting album that favors thoughtful ballads like “After the Fall” and her debut hit, “Don’t Know Why.”
Recorded on tours between 2017 and 2019, it showcases Jones’ impressive talents as a singer and piano player. Her voice is intimate and slightly husky, with occasional hints of her Texas drawl. She’s leading small bands, often just a bass player and a drummer, which allows her to stretch out her piano playing. She shines on soul jazz numbers such as “Those Sweet Words” and “Flipside,” which call to mind ‘60s great Les McCann.
Ten of the 14 songs come from either her first two albums or the singles she released between 2016′s Day Break and 2020′s Pick Me Off the Floor. The one surprise is a cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” recorded shortly after Chris Cornell’s death. Jones, alone at the piano, turns the grunge classic into a seven-minute elegy; it’s a captivating transformation.
— Steve Klinge
Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble
(International Anthem *** 1/2)
Much of the music recorded in the last year reflects the isolation we’ve all been enduring. Solo projects, home recordings, postproduction assemblages, or tech-enabled collaborations — so much music has been made at a distance. NOW, the latest release from Chicago-based artist/activist Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble, feels entirely different.
Recorded last summer and confronting the political and racial tensions of that anguished season, the album was captured in two collaborative sessions: the first, an outdoor gathering of the ensemble’s six-person chorus plus clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid; the second, a socially distanced in-studio session with drums, percussion, and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay. Locks was embracing a return to the communal, however fleeting.
“Your body aches under the weight of the metropolis,” the chorus sings in “Keep Your Mind Free.” And then the spirited work of some of Chicago’s most eclectic improvisers suggests an escape. Chirping cicadas accompany the musicians, lending a sense of space — a vast openness that feels like an oasis for as long as you are in it.
— Shaun Brady