Monday, January 20, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1334: Joan Shelley

I feel like I’ve just had a weekend that was too fun and that went too fast. There are worse weekends to have.

Disc 1334 is… Like the River Loves the Sea
Artist: Joan Shelley

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? An idyllic view somewhere. My guess is that this is the sea, but it could just as easily be a large river, which makes sense given the album title.

How I Came to Know It: I’ve been a fan of Joan Shelley since her 2017 self-titled effort, so when this one came out I was excited to hear it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Joan Shelley albums. They are all good, making competition tough, but I’ll put this one in at #2.

Ratings: 4 stars

I was disinclined to like this record, mostly because I thought the critics were fawning over it a bit too much. I’m contrary like that, which is fine when you’re trying to sniff out a snake-oil salesman, but not terribly valuable when exploring music. Fortunately, when I saw her album sitting on a shelf in a Portland record store, I forgot all the bullshit of my internal monologue and remembered how much I liked her.

Joan Shelley sings folk songs that float by you like morning mist, giving you the feeling of comfort and chill in the same moment. There are no rough edges here, but there is plenty of hard turns and steep cliffs. Shelley doesn’t jump off the latter, but she’s not afraid to take a long and solemn look down them either.

These are songs that tell their stories from the inside out, where everything is seen first from the core of the character Shelley sings from, encouraging you to slowly piece the outer world together from there, one image at a time.

To pull this off you need one hell of a voice, and Joan Shelley has that covered and then some. She’s no belter, and she’s not interested in crazy vocal runs either. She instead relies on a high sweet head-voice that is so pure it feels like she’s made of mist herself. There is something very traditional in her delivery, and I sometimes felt like I was staring into the Outer Hebrides listening to some Gaelic girl charm the see. However, at her heart she’s an Americana girl from Kentucky, and a bit of homespun country sway comes across in just the right measure.

I was so happy to just hear Shelley sing it took a bit longer than usual for me to start focusing on what she had to say. The music had enough emotional import on its own, with very simple production played with a slight echo that adds a soft-edged mystery.

Once I began paying closer attention the album became exponentially more appealing. A lot of these songs are about relationships, but these aren’t songs of high school romance. These are songs about complex relationships going right, going wrong, and sometimes just going straight to bed for a tumble. Shelley launches right in with well crafted lines from the very open, and lets the story unfurl from there. From the careless words we speak and then regret in “Teal”…

“Shock of teal blue
Beneath clouds gathering
And a line of emptied black
On the waves at the horizon
Like a glimpse into cold, dark space
Where I go when I’ve been short with you”

…to the worldly wisdom of “When What It Is” where a romantic offer is also an existential broadside, rocking speaker and listener alike:

“When what it is that makes you want me
No longer is what makes you cry
Then you can come and you can call me
Then you can take me to your side

“I’ve watched you fade and slip and falter
I’ve seen you bold, I’ve seen you weak
And I have wanted more than offered
I see the devil in my needs.”

For all this desolation and uncertainty, other parts of “Like the River…” can be both touching and sexy. “The Sway”, “Stay All Night” and “Tell Me Something” are all songs of seductive power, with Shelley inviting her lover to take charge and win her all over again. As she sings on “Tell Me Something”:

“So take me to the bed
Shake me to my knees
Where I can find a piece of you
You can have a piece of me.”

Whether she’s turning her lover on, or telling them off, Shelley is always raw and uncomfortably present in the moment. She sings hard truths, but her honey-pure vocals make it easy to hear and absorb.  

In the end, I was glad that this record took a while to sink in. It wasn’t until the third listen that it had me enspelled, at which point knew I’d be delaying this review just so I could give it a couple more listens. That might’ve delayed you hearing about it sooner, dear reader, but I hope you’ll indulge me these simple pleasures. You’re hear now, aren’t you?

Best tracks: Teal, When What It Is, The Fading, The Sway, Tell Me Something, Any Day Now

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