In one of the slower Januarys in recent memory, it took a while to settle on two worthwhile pop releases, with Sharon Van Etten the least stable of the pair.
Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
I know community centers in Hialeah with better names, but the featureless moniker is a stealth move. Coner Oberst, who hasn’t released an album that’s caught my ear since 2008, and Phoebe Bridgers, late of the worthwhile boygenius, collaborate on a project that strives for and occasionally matches the robust anonymity of an early sixties song factory. She isn’t yet Oberst’s match as an artist – her debut Stranger in the Alps strummed too close to friction-free seventies singer-songwriter fustiness – but she’s a strong harmonist. At its worst the album’s modest tunecraft set to typical alterna-folk arrangements creeps into somnolence; the too on-the-nose “Exception to the Rule” is a mortifying synth ‘n’ sequencer experiment that I expect from Grandpa Stephen Malkmus. Proclaiming their fealty to what they call “little moments of purpose,” they eulogize dead friends and L.A. Representing the former is “Forest Lawn,” apparently about a queer friend who sang “Que Sera, Sera” with “a straight face” and has vanished from their lives, perhaps beneath a few feet of sod. The strongest song uses Dylan Thomas as a Trojan Horse for a world where it’s easy for a person to “grow greedy with this private hell.”
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
“Seventeen” is the scariest evocation of adolescence in years, written from the point of view of a person far enough away to know she barely escaped yet old enough to get a high off the anxiety. The arrangement — distorted guitars cawing like seagulls over a piano — is built to match. On Sharon Van Etten’s fifth album, John Congleton behind the board signals the New Jersey singer’s commitment to an aura boldness that singer-songwriters often confuse for clarity; no matter how well-etched the electronics on “Jupiter 4” Van Etten doesn’t resonate beyond a gothic rewriting of Beach House. Opener “I Told You Everything” is also too tentative. So maybe she had the right idea: boldness is clarity. Shouting lustily about “hands” over an arpeggio and Congleton’s mixing board manipulations, confronting the self she abandoned when going home again in “Comeback Kid,” spitefully calling out the jerks reliving “loves past” in “No One’s Easy to Love” — these tracks present an adult who has scores to settle and for whom anger is an energy. For the Van Etten of Remind Me Tomorrow, adulthood brings no serenity.