Review: Sharon Van Etten brings 1994 to the Wex
"Happy Valentine's Day," Sharon Van Etten intoned moments after stepping on stage at the Wexner Center performance space. After a long pause, she added: "I wore black for you."
Then she grinned and giggled, as she often did between the gusts of dreary folk-rock that comprised the evening's entertainment. All night she was giddily playful, acting like an undergrad who binged on "special" brownies before meandering up to open mic night at the campus coffeehouse. She looked the part: hair pulled back haphazardly, wearing a striped black thrift store sweater and a smile always on the verge of bursting into laughter.
Her music took on a far more serious tone. It quickly became clear that Van Etten is the kind of person who laughs her way through life to cope with the kinds of feelings she can only channel into song -- empowerment, lust, despair and the like. As she sang at one point last night, "It hurts too much to laugh about it," so she sings. A compatriot of The National and The Antlers, she moves in similarly dusky moods, inhabiting a sonic space not unlike Lucinda Williams. The acoustic-oriented tunes ranged from chin-stroke-worthy to excruciatingly boring; she was at her best when she and her capable bandmates cranked up the volume and rocked 1994 style. Velocity Girl's pop chops and Hole's lingering dismay were in the mix. So was the guitar part from Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm."
Van Etten and company also fared well when upending expectations. "Magic Chords," a swinging mid-tempo rock tune that typically would have demanded guitar, instead benefited from a woozy mix of Autoharp, keyboard and accordion. Closing number "I'm Wrong" used bowed guitar and other means to build a bed of harmonic noise; it was one of those songs that builds tension and drifts away without ever fully climaxing, like an offensive line surging forward with pillows.
Though the music verged on revelatory at times, Van Etten is not a brilliant musician so much as a relatable songwriter. Her writing is crisp and compact, and on a day dedicated to some fabricated ideal of romance, lyrics like "Tell me I'm right/ Tell me I'm funny/ Even when I'm not" rang true.