Graded on a Curve:
Joan Shelley,
Like the River Loves
the Sea

The latest effort from contemporary folk singer-songwriter and guitarist Joan Shelley finds the Kentucky native recording far from home in Reykjavik, Iceland, but with her familiar support cast including Daniel Martin Moore, James Elkington, Nathan Salsburg, Kevin Ratterman, Cheyenne Mize, and Julia Purcell. Deepening her already impressive artistry, the record remains invested in the regional musics that help shape it, and while Bonnie “Prince” Billy lends harmony vocals to two tracks, the focus holds firmly on Shelley throughout. Her finest album yet, Like the River Loves the Sea is available now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through No Quarter.

Often those who spend their time listening to and perhaps commenting upon (or at least drawing conclusions about) recorded music can get caught up in the circumstances surrounding an album’s creation. The how, the what, the who, perhaps even the why, and in the case of Like the River Loves the Sea, certainly the where.

As her terrific accompanying text for the album makes clear, Joan Shelley understands this, but she also downplays matters a bit, relating her decision to record in Reykjavik to Lee Hazlewood’s Cowboy in Sweden, inexpensive airfare and the simple desire to visit a faraway (and alluringly unusual) place. Additionally, she explains that while made in Iceland, Like the River Loves the Sea is a record about Kentucky, and her words drive home how the making of an album is always more than the direct actions of its construction.

It is conversations had, new people met, meals shared, and indeed, places visited. It’s fostering a positive environment so that decisions can be made with clarity and certainty. In “Haven,” this LP’s brief but immediately gripping opening track, the assurance is palpable as the song strikes the perfect balance of beauty and intensity, all achieved with just vocals and guitar.

“Coming Down for You” expands the palette, adding drums and Will Oldham, an expert collaborator who falters not a bit in this role here. To the contrary, he excels at enhancing the record (on this cut through a non-standard bit of spoken harmony) without drawing undue attention to himself. Instead, he simply heightens matters with subtlety, this restraint also applicable further along in the sequence to the work of Shelley’s former bandmates in Maiden Radio, Cheyenne Mize and Julia Purcell.

But first, standout “Teal” deftly showcases a fusion of ’60s folk-pop and an (early) ’70s singer-songwriter template (I dig how the electric piano sneaks into the equation without making a big deal about it). Furthermore, it’s a brilliant, gorgeous, sturdily rendered tune emphasizing on first listen that Like the River Loves the Sea is onto something special.

“Cycle,” while initially more relaxed (and by extension, gentler), continues this progression of quality, although the richness of voice and the deftly fingered guitar do mark an increase in verve. The strings of Icelandic sisters Þórdís Gerður Jónsdóttir (cello) and Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir (violin and viola) (yes, a direct consequence of the Icelandic sojourn) unite with a touch of James Elkington’s Wurlitzer to broaden the landscape.

“When What It Is” leans nearer to folky introspection, reminding me a bit of the ’00s neo-folkies but without any self-consciousness (at least partly because Shelley is no Jane-come-lately to the folk roots of her native region). Oldham returns for “The Fading,” the ensuing vocal interplay quite appealing as the Jónsdóttir sisters’ playing elevates the track.

Not to get too far ahead, but Like the River lacks any weak selections, with “The Sway” highlighting Shelley’s vocal ability amid a slight nudge back into discerning singer-songwriter territory. But the folk thread is never far away on this LP, informing “Awake” and interweaving with elements redolent of prior country songstresses in contemplative mode.

However, “Stay All Night” combines the solo folk foundation with deep baroque atmosphere. It suggests Astral Weeks but at three minutes is astutely calibrated; the song could be released as a single. Notably, Shelley doesn’t linger in this neighborhood. While “Tell Me Something” foregrounds Elkington’s acoustic bass, even after the strings arise the track is nearer to young Joni than to prime Van, a comparison that extends into “High On the Mountain.”  Reengaging with the country motif, “Any Day Now” delivers a solid finale.

These dozen songs ultimately reinforce Joan Shelley as one of the current scene’s most astute folk-informed singers and players. While I’m tempted to call Like the River Loves the Sea an extremely disciplined album, its worthiness might just come down to being made in pleasurable surroundings and with a minimum of pressure. The bottom line is Joan Shelley went to Reykjavik and came home with a masterpiece.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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