New Music Reviews: Alvvays, Sharon Van Etten, & Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn

This week, the best album has the worst album cover art. Enjoy New Jersey singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, arty ambience from Spencer Zahn and Dawn Richard, and a tougher sound from Canadian indie band Alvvays.

Sharon Van Etten

We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong

2022, 7/10
Before streaming, listeners relied on the radio singles to gauge an album. In the case of Sharon Van Etten’s We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong they’d likely be disappointed. The first two singles from the record, ‘Mistakes’ and ‘Headspace’, are upbeat synth-pop, polished and radio-friendly. The rest of the New Jersey artist’s sixth record is more typical singer-songwriter fare, moody and introspective.

Van Etten’s detached voice is well-suited to the pop moments. The upbeat moments like ‘I’ll Try’ and ‘Mistakes’ overshadow the record’s lower-key songs. The darker songs like ‘Anything’ and ‘Born’ don’t quite have the melodic spark or warmth to reach the same level.

Van Etten has some very strong songs on this record, and on 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow – as well as last year’s collaboration with Angel Olsen. She’d be able to make an excellent greatest hits.


Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn

Pigments

2022, 8.5/10
Dawn Richard has released five studio albums over the past decade, making alternative R&B that satisfies with its hooks and intelligence. She also runs a food truck in her hometown of New Orleans. On her sixth album, Richard heads for more esoteric territory, working with Spencer Zahn – the pair were introduced by Kimbra. Zahn’s soundscapes are atmospheric, recalling Brian Eno or Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 album In A Silent Way. The arrangements are rich, augmented by organic instruments like saxophone, cello, and clarinet. Richard’s treated vocals swoop effortlessly around – the ambient backing highlights the fact that she’s an excellent vocalist.

I think the difference here is the choice to move into a more atmospheric place, and the only reason why I wanted to do that is I’ve had huge influences in my early days of listening to records like Pure Moods and Enya. Growing up, that was another part of my world––my father has a master’s in Music Theory––so growing up listening to Debussy and Bach and watching his process in music was a heavy influence on me as well.

Dawn Richard, https://editionml.com/dawn-richard-spencer-zahn-pigments-album-interview

It’s tough to pick individual highlights out from Pigments, since it’s one long song broken into sections. Additionally, it’s difficult to differentiate between the tracks when they’re all named for single word, natural objects like ‘Sienna’ and ‘Cobalt’. Despite the double billing, Richard’s vocals are absent from some tracks. The opening ‘Coral’ has a lovely instrumental motif that evokes Brian Eno’s Discreet Music; it serves as a prelude for the beauty of ‘Sandstone’. ‘Saffron’ is mostly a saxophone instrumental, with Richards’ vocals only appearing at the climactic point.

Dawn Richard is undervalued, and Pigments is another fine addition to an increasingly impressive catalogue.


Alvvays

Blue Rev

2022, 9/10
My father and I didn’t enjoy much of the same music. He thought that Charley Pride was “better” than The Beach Boys. We both liked Emmylou Harris, but I liked her genre-bending Beatles covers and Daniel Lanois collaborations, while he liked her most traditional work. In the 1990s, I liked the Loud Family while he liked The Rankin Family.

Alvvays’ lead vocalist Molly Rankin is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the daughter of Rankin Family fiddler John Morris Rankin. Blue Rev is named for a sweet Canadian alcoholic beverage that Rankin and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan drank as teenagers. The band intended to follow up 2017’s Antisocialites quickly, but a Covid-enforced five-year gap between releases enabled them to build up an impressive and diverse store of material.

Alvvays are best known for their twee indie-pop, like ‘Archie, Marry Me’. But on Blue Rev, they sound tougher in patches. On the most intense tracks, like ‘Easy on Your Own’ and ‘Many Mirrors’, the heavier guitars coupled with pretty vocals evoke My Bloody Valentine. The band also offer energetic power-pop on ‘Pomerian Spinster’ and ‘After the Earthquake’. The twee side of Alvvays’ music is still present on ‘Very Online Guy’, while ‘Belinda Says’ is an answer to Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.

Importantly, Alvvays’ ear for a tune never abates, and Blue Rev is one of my 2022 favourites.

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12 Comments

  1. I have “Marry me Archie” in my top 20 of the last decade 2010-2020, which was an incredible time for Indy/art Rock.

    Everyone’s list would be different with minimal overlap, and all would be great

    • For me it feels like the decade I know the least. I still have a lot of catching up to do. A lot of people enjoy ‘Archie, Marry Me’ though.

  2. Actually, Charlie Pride had his one moment of glory with Kiss an Angel Good Morning. A lot of those old country singers had that one crossover hit that you used to hear on the radio but then when you went to see if they had anything else good, you really didn’t find anything. But most of them had that one really great crossover .

    • I’m not necessarily a Charlie Pride hater, but it’s difficult to claim that he’s more talented than Brian Wilson.

  3. All three are new artists to me. Based on just the three clips you included, I would be most curious to hear more from Alvvays. Dawn Richard has an impressive voice, which together with the atmospheric sound does remind me a bit of Enya.

  4. I like the sound of the Alvvays. It reminds me a little of the early Bangles as far as the sound and the bounce of it. The music of this is completely up my alley.

    • Yeah, Alvvays seem like one of the few new releases I’ve covered this year that would fit onto your site’s aesthetic.

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