Graded on a Curve:
Joan Shelley,
Joan Shelley

The latest album from Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley is an eponymous blend of familiar elements and new twists. To elaborate, James Elkington and her longtime associate Nathan Salsburg have once again made the scene, and they’re joined by new recruit Jeff Tweedy in the dual role of producer and instrumentalist, plus his son Spencer on drums. Recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio The Loft, it reinforces Shelley’s strengths in an atmosphere both vibrant and intimate. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital via No Quarter.

Although she’s a native of Kentucky, Joan Shelley’s new LP is better described as folky rather than backwoodsy. Interestingly, Shelley identifies the root of the disc as “Hog of the Forsaken,” a tune from Michael Hurley, who for decades has stood as one of the USA’s great country-folk eccentrics. Don’t let that seem odd; Shelley’s work accurately derives from the rural, specifically the sturdy foundation of old-time styles, but it does so with intelligence, grace, and touches of erudition that can recall the ’60s folk boom. All the while, she never really strikes the ear as citified.

Shelley’s amassed a sturdy discography. As one-third of Maiden Radio she delved deep into the old-time, but in a manner encompassing the coffeehouse as well as the back porch. Farthest Field, a 2012 collab with fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore, nods to Gram and Emmy as Moore’s voice radiates a non-toxic similarity to Paul Simon. However, much of the disc connects as neo-folk somewhat in the mold of Iron & Wine.

Shelley’s 2012 solo effort Ginko, like Farthest Field and Maiden Radio’s Lullabies, was issued on the Old Kentuck label. It and especially her ’14 follow-up and debut for No Quarter Electric Ursa deepened the ’60s vibe mentioned above, outlining Laurel Canyon terrain but with no sacrifice to the traditional bedrock of her sound. The albums also established a recurring cast of support, including Moore, Salsburg, guitarist-engineer Kevin Ratterman, and guitarist-vocalist Joe Manning, with whom she teamed up for the rock-edged ’14 7-inch “Outside, Stay Outside.”

2015’s Over and Even strengthened Salsburg’s contribution amid an expanded lineup that included Will Oldham on three tracks. Excepting the psych-imbued title cut, the mood also switched coasts, delving into Appalachia but with a developing undercurrent of Brit traditions. The comparisons to Gillian Welch were never more fitting, but references to Linda Thompson made total sense as well.

And on Joan Shelley, they still do. “We’d Be Home” offers a vocal showcase right off the bat, the strength of the singing positioning Shelley as a legitimate heir to the talents of Thompson, Shirley Collins, and Sandy Denny, but most importantly without a trace of affectation or strain. Rather than faltering into imitation, she’s absorbed into her personal approach a tradition that spans an ocean, and that’s impressive.

Being a Kentucky native surely helps, as does hanging around a scholarly cat like Salsburg, but the foremost element across the LP is Shelley’s skill. Tweedy has crafted a record of alluring closeness, retaining the adeptness of Salsburg and Elkington while tightening the spotlight on the singer-guitarist, so even as “If the Storms Never Came” blends rural folk with subtle hints of psych rock, the focus remains on Shelley, and to striking effect.

Put another way, “If the Storms Never Came” easily stands up to multiple listens, in part due to brevity but also through a lack of anything extraneous. This leanness also impacts the whole of the album, helping the less trad, more pop-folk-angled number “Where I’ll Find You” to gel with its surroundings; additionally, the gradual rise of Elkington’s keyboard in the piece is splendid to hear. Tougher of constitution is “I Got What I Wanted,” which exudes the flavor of an old-time lament, while “Even Though,” like “We’d Be Home” featuring just guitar and voice, delivers a side-closing highlight.

“I Didn’t Know” opens the flip with appropriate energy, combining rock pulse, tasteful psych guitar, and unflaggingly solid vocals. Contrasting is “Go Wild,” which defies its title for a more leisurely pace nicely illuminating Shelley’s ability as a songwriter. The same goes for the slightly jazzy “The Push and Pull,” particularly the lyrics, though it’s the sound of her voice on the chorus that brings it all home.

“Pull Me Up One More Time” widens the instrumental palette, setting up a slightly more contemporary-hued section for the LP; it’s followed by “Wild Indifference,” the cut mingling prettiness of guitar and voice into something resembling neo-folk, but with no bad aftertaste. The string-vocal combo is magnified in “Isn’t that Enough,” the results a beauty move, ending the record on a high note and solidifying it as the best disc Joan Shelley’s made yet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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