Sharon Van Etten’s voice is front and center on new record Tramp, as well it should be. It’s an amazing instrument, strong and rich, yet her delivery is straight-forward, simple, and not ostentatious at all. She may be shy, but there aren’t many voices in rock that can carry a record so totally and effectively as Van Etten’s. The arrangements on Tramp are more varied and ambitious than on her previous releases, with as many rock songs as acoustic numbers. There are quite a few electric guitars on Tramp, which is somewhat new for Van Etten, but just as many songs are soft and slow and feature strings, ukulele, mandolin, trombone, or harmonium. Despite the varied instrumentation, producer Aaron Dessner of The National does not let the arrangements interfere with her voice. The production is uncluttered, leaving space for Van Etten’s amazing alto. The songwriting too is simple, with breaks and bridges kept to a minimum and instrumental breaks almost non-existent. A few of the songs, like “In Line,” “All I Can,” and “I’m Wrong,” are made up of a simple, unchanging chord patterns over which Van Etten works the lyrics, building the emotion of each piece. But her voice doesn’t overwhelm you on Tramp either. She doesn’t shout or wail or strain like Adele. On “Leonard,” one of the most affecting cuts on Tramp, she uses a good dozen notes to draw out the word “well” in the chorus. Because these challenging vocals are so easy for Van Etten, she gives the songs emotional force without having to force it. As usual for Van Etten, the songs are intense and personal, with moments of anger, guilt, angst, and introspection, as if you’re reading her diary. Dessner and several other indie rock luminaries make guest appearances on Tramp, such as Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Julianna Barwick, and Zach Colon (Beirut) all on vocals. But none of them overwhelm Van Etten in the mix or distract the listener from her voice, as well it should be. — MIKE WALSH
Sharon Van Etten’s voice will be front and center on Friday night at Johnny Brenda’s, the first stop on her tour supporting Tramp.