A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Authenticity
Written By Zennie Trieu
With gentle guitar melodies and a vocal range that allows for both patience and playfulness, Ethan Charles Abramson delivers a delightful debut album filled with simple longings, stripped-down feelings, and a special attention to specificity in his lyrics. Less Bullshit, More Ethan Charles has little to do with Ethan himself and has a lot more to do with the people he’s encountered, the places he’s experienced, and the things he’s enjoyed. Ethan, born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and now based indefinitely in New York City, sits down with me for an in-person interview, which ended up being a one-on-one conversation that lacked the kind of overly-anticipatory answers usually expected from artists always attempting to promote their personalized brands. Rather, he exhibited to me what seemed and sounded like a rare yet refreshing air of unadorned honesty.
On a bustling Friday night during the coldest month of a standard New York winter (that is to say, increasingly relentless, ever more fickle, and, to a greater extent, outstaying its welcome while we flip our calendars to what were formerly known as springtime months), Ethan Abramson and I meet at The Bounty, a trendy yet cozy nautically-themed restaurant in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint district offering inspired seafood dishes, exceptional American fare, and comfortingly classic cocktails.
It all started, Ethan tells me between sips of his sidecar, with being on Facebook at the ostensibly right—but ultimately wrong—time. Brett Dennen, a Californian folk-pop singer-songwriter, posted an AMA-esque status to his followers. Ethan, a big Dennen fan—as well as a Nick Drake devotee, a Tallest Man on Earth enthusiast, a Patti Smith lover, and a Townes Van Zandt admirer—responded to his idol with something along the lines of: “I’d love to open for you for your next performance in NYC!” Dennen asked Ethan to email him some material. Ethan, of course, would have loved nothing more—except that he didn’t have a well-recorded (or, really, any recorded) demo to send over. Feeling dejected and sensing the first few flames of what would become that fateful fire under his bum, he decided that this dang-it moment meant that now was the time to stop being just an (emphasis on the adjective) aspiring artist and to actually turn those ideas of his into something more concrete and concise.
You know, like an album.
(Also, Ethan would like to extend another message to Brett Dennen: The offer still stands!)
Ethan’s 2018 debut album cover, above, featuring a rug found via Craigslist and a more sedulously sought chair from Long Island. The shot was taken with thrillingly precise timing in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan—yes, seriously.
Less Bullshit, More Ethan Charles sounds like the kind of folk-pop/alt-rock album from someone so obviously inspired by and obsessed with Bob Dylan (Ethan: “I mean, of course”), but it also feels like part Elizabethtown-soundtrack (“I haven’t seen it”), part performance-at-the-beginning-of-Begin-Again (“I hate Mark Ruffalo”).
The opening song, “For The Bride,” immediately illuminates Ethan’s powerful tool of patience. We hear a harmonica and then the strumming of a guitar picking up, but Ethan’s voice doesn’t come in until nearly the end of the first minute: truly, a humble beginning for an artist. It’s not difficult to imagine him in a small café or Lower East Side bar, building up the boldness to sing in front of a crowd while addressing one particular person in mind: “And if I ever do surrender, / You played a part along the way. / And I'll be open for the taking, / With honesty just for the day, / Or the bride. / Lord, I tried.”
Continuing on this trend of transparency is the gentle sounding—but unapologetically unembellished—“Expectations,” a sobering song about finding solace in sadness and drinking solo, all stemmed from the inevitable envy when unexpectedly seeing a past lover move on. Combining a soothing rhythm with a seemingly spontaneous change of heart in his narrative, Ethan struggles with succumbing to the brutal bitterness of the green-eyed monster, then letting it all morph once more into a red-hot longing, from “Well I've been feeling sorry since forever, / But you should apologize for two” to “Well I'm quite used to hearing no, / But from you it sounds so charming.”
This freedom to change and be changed—this willingness to go with the flow and let what’s in front of him overtake him—is a liberating listening experience: we don’t know what he’ll say next, but we are so here for it, and we’re ready to hear more. I mention to him that this trait is convenient for his acting: an openness to be affected. His response: “Lately, I’ve only been getting acting gigs for roles where I play music.” He says it without the need to overanalyze; for now, anyway, he just accepts it.
Not dissimilarly from the way he talks to me in person (taking the time to make sure he’s heard me correctly, taking the additional time he needs to quietly consider his answers, and then offering responses that always seem to leave openness for interpretation without being indulgently mysterious), Ethan’s lyrics on his songs rarely—if ever—sound pre-meditated. Words, phrases, and sentences seem to drift out of him as if he is recalling memories in real time, whereas each pluck on the guitar sounds deliberate and direct enough to ground both singer and listener in the narrative. This is most evident in the delicate “Long Gone,” where he seems to embrace his role as wistful watcher of the more active participants in the game of life (“To the girl all alone on New Year's Eve; / To the couple that never lasted just a week; / To the dogs that found a brand new spot to pee; / And to the sun that I'll see rising through the trees”), as well as in the even more intimate “August Revisited” (“With a pack of Camel Blues, / And none but wingtips on my boots, / I'm inclined to get specific / With the names”). Indeed, it is this remembrance of distinct details, this fierce focus on other folks, and this sweet scarcity of bullshit—a welcome absence of varnish—that allow for a steady stream of singular events to flow as a through-line for the record.
My favorite is the midpoint number “A Moment’s Notice” (Ethan tells me, in an unironic tone, that “all the chicks love it”—which makes me feel both insecure and in-the-know). This song, sounding more innocently upbeat than the others without dipping into naiveté or even sentimentally, truly highlights an eager enthusiasm from the artist to play with pitch, to sing loudly and proudly even when feeling lost and maybe even pained. His vocal diversity is a total delight in its daring readiness to let loose and live on.
If there were a lead single from the album, it would be “Highway Song”: it most showcases Ethan’s permission to let a song’s story breathe with sincere regret and acknowledgement of one’s wrongdoings without the quick fix of self-deprecating humor: “And I try, I try, / To make peace with danger, / And dream of smaller mountains, / To climb, […] But I find, I find, / That there's far more danger, / In leaving all my hopes, / Before the moon.” Shout-outs to the good green earth abound in Ethan’s lyrics, perpetuating this quest to find purpose in the purity of the great outdoors (with nature’s objective eye and all), but there’s also a self-acknowledgement that someone so young and ambitious like him will most likely not be able to escape the allure of urban life… for now, at least.
In Less Bullshit’s second half, “Something I Can Argue” and “What I Became” are both bursting with brutal nostalgia, very much dipping into Don Draper territory (Ethan loves Mad Men and we both are big fans of the episode “Far Away Places”; moreover, Ethan is probably more of a Roger). The former song: “But I won't take back what I stole, / It wasn't me, it was the gin, / I burn my sins from both ends.” The latter song, a bold composition featuring a banjo: “Well I fancied her a burden, / and she made me such a whale, / That I didn't say a word when I was through. / And she never liked my music, / but I lied about her hair, / And when I said she'd have some growing up to do / And I'd leave it all behind, / If it could kill her once to smile, / If it could only once a while, / There'd be a day.”
The precursor to “What I Became” is, naturally, “What I’ve Been Drinking,” which oozes both desire and despair. It somehow works, and one doesn’t have to wonder why for too long: “It's the way that you walk, and it's the i's that you dot, / And it's the legs that keep you dancing, or your lips when you talk.” But it ain’t all fine and dandy, and with Ethan, who knows better from having been around the block, there’s due reason for some doubt: “And it's the blues or it's the game you choose, / But I'm praying that she don't make a fool of me.”
Ethan emphasizes more than once to me that his friends are his true family (“Everything with my music—it’s for them”). The final* song on the record—a cosmopolitan concluding act—is, appropriately, entitled “And One for My Friends (Detroit).” It is here that he is the most no-nonsense—truly, less bullshit: “And I'm hopeful / but I'm scared.” He names his friends’ names, a ballsy move that’s anchored by his unabashed observations from his travels, from H-Town to NYC. The accumulation of Ethan’s cheers to his comrades allows for an unintentionally all-encompassing epilogue to a damn good debut work.
*Well, I listened to the album on Apple Music, which actually ends with the rowdy bonus track “One of These Days.” It’s an All-American feel-good number that’s a well-earned walk on the wild side. When all is said and done, it’s time to let the instruments do the talking.
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