Tuesday, June 20, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1652: Joan Shelley

My health kick seems to be sticking, and I went for another run today, my fifth in the past eight days. So far the old bones and what’s left of my tendons and connective tissue seem to be holding up. More importantly, I feel a lot calmer and generally at ease.

If you want to feel calm and at ease this next record would be a strong choice.

Disc 1652 is…The Spur

Artist: Joan Shelley

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  Joan Shelley’s not-so-giant head is wrapped up in some kind of fabric. Maybe a scarf? This cover has a peaceful diffuse feeling to it that I find restful, much like I find the music.

How I Came To Know It: I was a Joan Shelley fan dating back five or six years now. This was just me giving her latest album a listen.

How It Stacks Up: I have seven Joan Shelley albums. This one is so good it bumped my two previous four-star reviews (ranked 2 and 3 at the time) down a notch each, taking over second place in the process. Does this mean that there is another Joan Shelley album out there better even than this? I hold out hope there is, but if not, I shall be just as content.

Rating: 5 stars

Imagine the grace of sitting somewhere in dappled sunlight, looking out at some magnificent natural scene, with a light summer wind blowing the branches around you. Nothing can match that, but Joan Shelley comes close.

“The Spur” is Shelley’s ninth record and like a fine red wine, she just gets better with age. I wanted to say a fine scotch, but there is a lighthearted refinement to Shelley that speaks more to sun-kissed vineyards, and less the heavy peat of hard liquor.

It all starts with Shelley’s voice. Impossibly high but never flighty, there are few that match its organic yet ethereal magic. Maybe Alela Diane, but that’s about it. Otherwise, she is in a field all her own. Better yet, she knows just how to use that voice, lilting lightly across the top of melodies, so weightless you can imagine her dancing across the tops of treetops, barely bending the branches with her passing.

Add to this incredible instrument some first-rate guitar playing from both Shelley and husband Nathan Salsburg and you start to approach the divine. I can never tell who is playing which part when they play together, but I rarely care. It is sublime.

The production on “The Spur” is thicker and richer than much of her earlier work. Often this causes me to detach from the bones of a song, but here all the extra bits – the cut of the cello, the gentle touches of brass – all converge just right. The effect helps lift you into a wakeful reverie akin to a lucid dream.

Many songs captured my attention. Both “Forever Blues” and the title track feature all of what is best on the record (see above) and right when you can’t get enough of all those high head voices, Shelley drops “Home” on you. “Home” is a song that captures in both music and lyrics that insistent, rising excitement of what it feels like to come back to a place you’ve left years ago. Is it still yours? The building lyrics ask that question without an easy answer:

I left home
Moonlit home
To lose its sound and tone

Something stirs in your heart when you hear this song, capturing the loss of leaving, the excitement of returning and the uncertainty of all the spaces in between. And despite all the unknowns, Shelley’s vocals wrap you in a blanket of clouds and let you know wherever you are, it is a safe place for emotional discovery.

On “Like the Thunder” the journey is full of the same restless energy, but this time with a burning desire. This song threatens to topple over, but the electric guitar holds you at that place on the edge of abandon while blue notes reverberate diffusely across the empty spaces in the melody.

As if she hadn’t won me over enough already, on “When the Light is Dying” Shelley even quotes Leonard Cohen. And not classic Cohen either, but “You Want it Darker” Cohen. Like me, Shelley’s stuck with the poet into his old age.

Whatever is going on here, the combination of Shelley’s vocal talent, the musicianship, the production and the songwriting all come together in a way that will bring peace to even the most troubled soul. My only regret is that I somehow overlooked this record on my Best of 2022. I recant.

Best tracks: All tracks but some favourites are: Forever Blues, The Spur, Home, Like the Thunder, When the Light is Dying, Fawn, Why Not Live Here, Between Rock and Sky (that’s 8 of the 12 available and the other 4 are also good)

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