Review: Etta Marcus swings wide on ‘Heart-Shaped Bruise’

“Heart-Shaped Bruise” by Etta Marcus (Polydor)

Etta Marcus hates being called a sad girl. Her major label debut, “Heart-Shaped Bruise,” features its share of pain and loss, but the singer-songwriter comes out swinging from the opening track, “Nosebleed,” singing “I’m the b(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk) that broke your nose.”

The violence of the line, like the record title itself, is a metaphorical reference to the artist’s own interior struggles, and a jarring command to lean forward and listen.

On “Heart Shaped Bruise,” Marcus makes good use of the new set of musical tools at her disposal. Her sound is now more complex and expansive, incorporating new elements such as horns and strings to ratchet up the emotional intensity.

Marcus produced the new EP with her guitarist, Josh Scarbrow. Despite the increased complexity the recording keeps her strengths front and center — her voice remains a strong and versatile vehicle for her lyrical dexterity.

The production pays loving attention to the many sounds that guitars can make. Marcus is a devoted fan of David Bowie, and though she never sounds like him, her skill at building complicated songs around a simple scaffolding of rhythm guitar evokes Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” era.

While her earlier self-released music placed Marcus squarely in the DIY singer-songwriter camp, “Heart-Shaped Bruise” is both more accessible and harder to pin to a specific genre. The more uptempo sound is a blend of pop with well-chosen moments of subtle country and jazz elements.

The interplay of horns and acoustic guitar on “Smile for the Camera,” for example, give the single a strong 1980s vibe, and here the mix of uptempo sound and biting dark humor evokes complaint-rock bands of the era such as The Smiths.

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