First Impressions: Love Wash by Mike Etten

Imagine Lou Reed fronting the Revolver-era Beatles, Rain Parade backing Townes Van Zandt, or Richard Thompson joining the Stone Roses. To an extent, any one of those mental pictures works well to describe Love Wash, the debut album from NYC-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Etten, who’s toured and performed with a variety of bands over the past decade. To borrow a song title from the Long Ryders, Love Wash is pure psychedelic country soul, with some folk and folk-rock flourishes tossed in for good measure. It’s a compelling listen.

As a whole, it’s low key but not lo-fi, and best appreciated through headphones, where the soundscape often mutates into an intense dreamscape. The first track, “Across the Flats,” is a great example. It finds Etten on a cross-country train trip mulling over his fear of commitment and more. “Speed hits your head like a hammer/and you’re gone, gone, gone, gone….” As the songs unfolds, tape loops occasionally percolate from the nether land (a la “Tomorrow Never Knows”) before receding into the void.

“Drive,” the first single, continues the spacey-yet-grounded vibe. Inspired by a late-night ride on a country road, it features Tristan Shepherd on steel pedal.

The second teaser track, “Saints,” was released two weeks back. It opens with a strummed acoustic guitar, but expands into something much more, with drums, synths and a violin coloring the music to great effect. As on the album’s other songs, Etten tends to surround his vocals with equal parts echo and harmonies, which can make it difficult to decipher what he’s singing. It annoyed me at first, to be honest, but over time I’ve come to hear his floating vocals as part of the soundscape, a la Michael Stipe and early R.E.M.

The meditative “December Sun” finds him “thinking of what-ifs” and expands upon the country licks hinted at in the first two songs, while “Dredging Up the Blues” ups the tempo and rhythm while he makes like a boozy Bob Dylan: “Saw me at the lottery stand/I was holding a sign that read, ‘leave me alone, child.’”

“New Thing” harkens back to the latter-day Byrds, while the gentle “Dune House” recalls a “weekend away where everybody’s safe” in the COVID era. “Hidden Away” continues the reflective mood, with him sharing his disdain for mornings while yearning for a new nightlife—a sentiment that’s shared by many, I’m sure. “East Side Walk,” the most country tune of the set, finds him fed up with city life: “Well eight years gone by, like a film dissolved/The city’s for the very young/And the folks from somewhere else.” The album closes with the title track, which builds from an acoustic open into something a tad more ominous, with a violin curling in from the background like a scythe.

All in all, as evidenced by the above, I like it a lot. It reminds me, in some ways, of the music made my beloved Paisley Underground bands, which sported a mishmash of influences that somehow jelled into a coherent sound. The same’s true here. Give it a go.

The album is slated for release on Friday, October 1st and can be pre-ordered from Bandcamp.

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