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Originally published Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 1:14 PM

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Concert review

Sharon Van Etten elevates, mesmerizes Neptune Theatre crowd

Sharon Van Etten, the introspective singer-songwriter who may have a breakthrough album in "Tramp," performed for an admiring crowd Sunday at the Neptune Theatre, which willingly lost itself in her poetic lyrics and the band's ambient sea of sound.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Concert Review |

Someone from the admiring audience at Sharon Van Etten's concert Sunday night at the Neptune Theatre handed her a flower, which she sweetly accepted and stuck between the strings of her guitar.

Then sweetness gave way to some of the 31-year-old singer-songwriter's toughest, if strikingly poetic, lyrics about her trademark theme: trying to hang onto body and soul in the face of relentless loss and illusion.

"I need you to know there's nothing left to sell me / I'm broke," she sang in "Save Yourself," from her 2010 release "Epic."

You couldn't miss the anxious, confrontational strain in Van Etten's writing. But it was also impossible not to feel lifted by the song's huge backbeat and ringing undertone, a rising, mesmerizing arrangement that came at you in cyclical fashion, decorated by hints of country and sung with appealingly pretty mournfulness.

Welcome to Sharon Van Etten's oddly compelling music, with its stream-of-consciousness introspection wrapped in folk-rock tradition, emotionally intensified by bold, inventive pop-rock settings that serve both as echo chamber and release.

If there's a somber sameness to many of Van Etten's tunes — her voice is actually well-suited to midtempo rockers, and a few more wouldn't hurt — her gift for thrilling word association and richly colored sound can transport one to near-exotic pop bliss.

Van Etten's Neptune appearance, in support of what could be her breakthrough new album, "Tramp," was dominated by fresh material and captured (sometimes expanded upon) "Tramp's" jangling, densely textured yet nimble production by The National's Aaron Dessner.

Van Etten handled most of the guitar duties, as her four-member band whipped up an array of moods and atmospheres, often built on contrast.

The big drums, dreamy acoustic guitar and tiny keyboard accents on "Kevin's" added up to a sense of floating, while the nightmarish ferocity of "Serpents" had an arresting beauty.

The show's highlight was the fantastic noise the band built around "I'm Wrong," an ambient sea of bowed guitar, hurdy-gurdy and humming cymbal, as meditative as it was rocking. It was a sound to get lost in, perfectly suited to Van Etten's plea to be told the meaningfulness of love and her muse isn't as elusive as she fears.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com.

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