Album Reviews

Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley

Artist:     Joan Shelley

Album:     Joan Shelley

Label:     No Quarter Records

Release Date:     05/05/2017

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Shuttering herself inside Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago for five days, folk songbird Joan Shelley recorded her eponymous fourth album. It has all the intimacy of a confessional. Acting as a sort of priest, Jeff Tweedy urged her to take a “less is more” approach, as opposed to saying a number of Hail Marys. In press materials accompanying the new release, Shelley said, “He was protecting the songs, stopping us before we went too far.”

That restraint manifests in hushed, nuanced instrumentation that gently caresses Shelley’s graceful, poignant vocals, so perfectly attuned to the changing moods and romantic yearning of inward-looking lyrics that try desperately to make sense of the unsolvable mysteries of the human heart. Echoes of Greenwich Village and the 1960s emanate from a rather spare and wintry “We’d Be Home” and a waltzing “I Got What I Wanted,” while the soothing, sleepy-eyed “Go Wild” and “Where I’ll Find You” softly glow with incandescent warmth, sashaying slowly across a lonely dance floor without a care in the world.

Encouraging spontaneous bursts of creativity, the Loft was an ideal environment for Shelley, who sought a new relationship with her guitar. Messing around with tunings and whatever ideas popped into her head generated songs. Inspired by the fiddle work in Michael Hurley’s Long Journey, Shelley wanted her voice to walk arm-in-arm with every strummed part, with every plucked note. They seem to have a suicide pact in “Even Though,” a track soaked in melancholy. Despite its minimalist aesthetic, Joan Shelley is tender and inviting, instead of edgy and aloof. Its themes are universal; its struggles are real.

—Peter Lindblad

 

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