Sharon Van Etten
Making music has gotten easier for Sharon Van Etten, but keeping love seems to be as hard as ever. The new album from the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, "Are We There," is all about romance, but there’s not a sunny number in the bunch. "I Love You but I’m Lost" and "Your Love Is Killing Me" are typical titles. "Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you," commands the dark-voiced alto in the latter tune, an epic lament on the frustrations of a long-distance relationship.
Van Etten began by recording and releasing her songs in spare, fragile versions. Her breakthrough third album, 2012’s "Tramp," sounded bigger and tougher, abetted by producer Aaron Dessner, guitarist for the National. The pointedly self-produced "Are We There" is mostly hushed, emphasizing piano over guitar, a shift Van Etten credits to composing on an electronic Omnichord while on tour. The album also contrasts its raw lyrics with strings, horns, woodwinds and close harmonies.
Aside from the harmonies, though, that’s not what Van Etten is taking on the road. She played a secret show in early June in Manhattan, introducing her current group: a conventional rock lineup, but with the versatility required by the singer’s new material. When she played "Taking Chances," one of the new album’s standouts, the other musicians matched her, risk for risk. - Mark Jenkins
With Jana Hunter on Tuesday at the 9:30 Club. Show starts at 8 p.m. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. $18.
Listen: Sharon Van Etten's "Taking Chances."
Tune-Yards (often stylized as tUnE-yArDs) is now a full band, but the project didn’t start that way. Merrill Garbus formed Tune-Yards in 2006 as a one-woman band, fleshing out the lo-fi sound of her debut album, "Bird-Brains," with loops and drum machines.
Over time, she added bassist Nate Brenner as a co-songwriter, and she augments her live sound with a backing band, further heightening the electric energy.
There’s a childlike exuberance to the band’s sound on its latest album, "Nikki Nack," thanks to the repetitive chanting, chaotic synth samples and driving percussion. That lively innocence is exemplified in the video for "Water Fountain," which is a journey through a psychedelic version of "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse," never quite making logical sense but perfectly capturing the song’s energy.
The rest of "Nikki Nack" reveals Garbus’s new flair for Caribbean rhythms, as on the tracks "Sink-O" and "Stop That Man." Her lyrics are repetitive at times, but there are enough unexpected lines to keep things moving. Garbus even throws in a couplet referencing a topical, local sports issue ("I come from the land of slaves! / Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves!" on "Real Thing"). It may sound like a playground taunt, but there’s a real maturity buried within. - Catherine P. Lewis
With Sylvan Esso on Friday and Saturday at the 9:30 Club. Doors open at 8 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. 202-265-0930. www.930.com. Both shows are sold out.
Listen: Tune Yard's "Water Fountain"
Asgeir Trausti Einarsson, who performs as Asgeir, may still be emerging in America, but he’s a star in his native Iceland. His album "In the Silence" broke records there, becoming the fastest-selling debut for an Icelandic artist.
The 21-year-old singer-songwriter will be far from home when he visits the Backstage at the Black Cat, but his pensive songs will be a cozy fit for the intimate venue. "In the Silence" is an acoustic-guitar-based folk album whose star is Asgeir’s emotive tenor. His vocals are hushed, made even softer by his purring accent, but the laid-bare emotions amp up the drama. Somehow, Asgeir is simultaneously understated and over-the-top.
Vocally, Asgeir begs for a comparison to Justin Vernon, the oft-teased singer of Bon Iver whose fragile tenor has made him the poster boy for sentimental softies. Such songs as "In Harmony" or the fretful "Going Home" bring to mind Vernon’s acute emotions and pastoral feel.
Asgeir is less outwardly eccentric than many Icelandic musicians, including Bjork and Sigur Ros. His songs have a distinct character - acoustic guitars backed by patient (often electronic) beats and lush keyboards - but his straightforward balladry could never be called "quirky." - Dan Miller
Monday at the Black Cat. Doors open at 8 p.m. 202-667-4490. www.blackcatdc.com. $12.
Listen: Asgeir's "Going Home"