Joan Shelley’s voice is one of singular beauty. In a genre full of talented songwriters with equally impressive vocal chords, Shelley stands out because of the sheer emotion she conveys in her songs. Her self titled fourth effort sees her continue in largely the same direction as previous efforts; and whilst long terms fans won’t be too surprised at what the album has to offer, plotting a steady course has allowed Shelley to refine her art to new levels of clarity.
Sparse without ever feeling under cooked, Shelley’s latest is an album which relishes in moments of reflective solitude, and whose lyrics often give an insight into the singer’s own life and mindset. Though deeply personal, they’re songs penned with enough style to keep them accessible to all. ‘I Didn’t Know’s reflections on love and desire are universal enough to be applicable to most whilst still offering Shelley a platform to express her own feelings.
If it’s an album of lyrical class, then the music effortlessly lives up to expectations. Subtle and well performed, it’s as musically expressive and detailed as Shelley’s vocal performance; the guitar work of collaborator Nathan Salsburg is subtle and nuanced. Producer Jeff Tweedy likewise clearly has a respect and understanding for Shelley’s songs. The production is clear and airy whilst arrangements are minimal and sensitive to the heart-on-sleeve nature of the songs.
Both sonically and in terms of attitude, Shelley straddles the traditional and the modern without wholly committing to either – but rather than feeling awkward, she instead finds a harmonious middle ground between the two. There’s an old world Appalachian clarity to her voice and the control she has over it, but the songs themselves lie more in the idiom of contemporary American songwriters such as Meg Baird, Jessica Pratt and Steve Gunn.
It’s hard to pick standouts on a set of songs as high calibre as this, but the intricate build up of ‘If The Storms Never Came’ has an almost Fairport Convention slant – fitting given that Shelley recently toured with Richard Thompson – whilst the bittersweet melancholy of ‘Even Though’ is simply lovely. The album’s bare-bones presentation does mean that sonically it sticks to the genre’s tried and tested instruments – a basis of acoustic guitars with occasionally light electric lead and the odd softly shuffling drum part – but that does lend the album an intimacy and simplicity that benefits the gentle melancholia of the songs.
Delicately dancing dual guitar parts only further embellish the songs here, with both Shelley and Salsburg providing some fine, if understated, string work that never forgets to serve the song first and foremost whilst still finding a way to impress in it’s own right.
It all comes together to create an album that has all the breathing room Shelley’s songs really need in order to shine. ‘Joan Shelley’ is a collection of 11 miniature reveries, all treated with the respect they deserve. Less is so often more – especially with acoustic music – and this album is the perfect example of that.