As far as I can tell, my father has only ever really enjoyed one very specific form of popular music: Folk music, as sung by women with high and sharp and crystalline voices, without a whole lot of accompaniment. He’s maybe the only person I’ve ever heard make the argument that Joan Baez was a more vital artist than Bob Dylan. He never really cared about the Beatles and openly disdained the Rolling Stones. He liked a few Motown songs but lost interest when the label’s sound became even vaguely psychedelic. In the early ’90s, he got slightly into new-age stuff like Enya and Clannad, but I think that was only because those women’s voices were pretty similar to the folk singers he’d always liked, and also because he liked the movie Patriot Games. I once asked him about Leonard Cohen, and he said he thought he’d once fallen asleep at one of Cohen’s shows. As it turned out, he was wrong. It wasn’t Leonard Cohen who put my dad to sleep; it was James Taylor. He couldn’t tell the difference. They just weren’t what he was into. But he was so into that very particular lane of music that I get a sort of instant Pavlovian stress-reaction when I hear any of that stuff. It puts me right in the backseat of a crusty-smelling station wagon, driving all up and down the East Coast to go visit obscure relatives, listening to Judy Collins or Laura Nyro or early Joni Mitchell. Point is: For my own goofy personal reasons, I have deeply ingrained prejudice against any singer-songwriters who sound like they’d fit into the Stuff My Dad Likes lane. Anything that sounds like that has to be really fucking good to break through my built-in wall of resistance. And the new Joan Shelley album is really fucking good.
Shelley is from Louisville, but there’s only a slight hint of regional accent in her voice. Her form of folk music doesn’t take much from country or rock or indie. It’s simple and spare and elegant. She sings about big emotions, sometimes, but she never lets her voice raise above a murmur. She keeps composed, with a sort of quiet reserve that I associate more with New England than with Kentucky. She’s been making music for a while, but she only found wide distribution with her last album, Electric Ursa, which is less than a year old. She recorded Over And Even in a cold Kentucky barn, with fellow Kentucky roots-music singer-songwriter Daniel Martin Moore producing. Other musicians flit through the album, and some of them are fairly famous: Former Rachel’s leader Rachel Grimes adding light dustings of piano to a few songs, Will Oldham singing backing harmonies on a few more. But the music never feels fleshed-out or orchestrated, even when there’s a harmonium or a Wurlitzer humming in the mix. Shelley’s only full-time bandmate is the acoustic guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Shelley and Salsburg play these soft, unobtrusive, deceptively complex interlocking acoustic guitar melodies, and those two guitars, as well as whatever other instruments might be present on the song, are just there as supporting players. Shelley’s voice is the star. Everything else fades into the background.
Shelley’s voice is a warm and welcoming thing. At first, it seems soft and conversational and unremarkable, but then she’ll hit these la-da-das that will just absolutely destroy you with beauty. She never pulls any vocal histrionics and never strains for attention. There’s no church in her voice. Instead, she comes off as someone who sings quietly to herself, who uses that voice as a tool to help understand the world. She opens the album by trying to convince herself to break her own sense of torpor and leave her own house: “Gotta leave this house, go swiftly out / I’ve been lying around till noon.” Her lyrics are of the bucolic, pastoral sort. She sings about smells triggering memories, about feeding birds and watching leaves fall and sitting on the side of a mountain to hear birds scream at each other. Hers isn’t the type of songwriting I tend to like; there’s not concrete specificity to what she’s singing about. But there’s a powerful oblique poetic quality to her words. And I can’t remember the last time I heard someone sing so beautifully about the inevitability of death: “When that day comes and the lights go dim / The weight off your shoulders, the sun off your skin / And the ones who have known you, your lovers and friends / Will be marked by the spark that was taken.”
Still, Shelley’s words matter less than the sense of contented peace that her entire sound conjures. There’s nothing fresh or even especially distinctive about Over And Even. Instead, it’s an album of old sounds made with uncommon grace and fluidity. It’s a short album, 12 songs in under 40 minutes, but plays out in a way that makes time warp and bend. It’s music for lying down on a grass field on a breezy-but-sunny day, contemplating the sky — exactly the sort of activity that Shelley could easily sing about. The songs don’t sound like 2015; they sound like they’ve drifted over to us from some lost, dateless era. The title track, my favorite song, could almost be some Appalachian hymn that nobody’s thought to put to tape until now. It practically radiates tranquility. And listening to it, I feel closer to understanding what my dad has always loved about this sort of music than I’ve ever been before.
Over And Even is out 9/4 on No Quarter. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Miley Cyrus’ berserk surprise Flaming Lips/Mike Will Made-It collab Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.
• Travi$ Scott’s bleary arena-rap monolith Rodeo.
• Dâm-Funk’s enormous collab-heavy double album Invite The Light.
• FIDLAR’s raucous snot-punker Too.
• The Libertines’ big comeback Anthems For Doomed Youth.
• Widowspeak’s sharp, inviting indie rocker All Yours.
• Scarface’s grainy, rumbling Houston rap album Deeply Rooted.
• Dan Auerbach’s new band the Arcs’ soulful blues-rocker Yours, Dreamily.
• Grouper side project Helen’s dreamy, enveloping The Original Faces.
• Lou Barlow’s intense divorce album Brace The Wave.
• Diane Coffee’s pillowy psych-popper Everybody’s A Good Dog.
• The Wonder Years’ bright, incisive pop-punker No Closer To Heaven.
• Blank Realm’s DIY psych-popper Illegals In Heaven.
• Iron Maiden’s grand, majestic, nostalgia-inducing The Book Of Souls.
• Los Colognes’ old-school country-rocker Dos.
• Public Image Ltd.’s heritage post-punker What The World Needs Now….
• Gold Class’ universal post-punker It’s You.
• Cruciamentum’s primal death metal attack Charnel Passages.
• Axis’ metalcore lurcher Show Your Greed.
• Against Me!’s live album 23 Live Sex Acts.
• Something Anorak’s Ageist EP.