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Published on November 20th, 2019 | by voxx

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Joan Shelley – Like The River Loves The Sea

The Kentucky folk singer-songwriter’s fifth album runs a compelling course…

The safe-for-drinking purity of Joan Shelley’s voice could lull you into thinking that this album is a calm, still place, somewhere to sit in a drowse, maybe listening to the insect buzz that introduces ‘When What It Is’. As might be expected from an associate of Will Oldham and Jeff Tweedy, however, the singer and guitarist’s songwriting isn’t that uncomplicated.

The silt at the bottom of the songs on Like The River Loves The Sea soon stirs itself up, brief whirls of turmoil glittering to the surface. “Any day now, it could be your last one,” she sings ambiguously on ‘Any Day Now’, while Teal’s unresolved ending and domestic discomfort creates an eerie tableau, evenly pitched between Judee Sill and Judy Collins. Oldham, meanwhile, appears on the Appalachian fable of ‘Coming Down For You’ and the mayfly romance of ‘The Falling’, another small cloud on these songs’ clear blue horizons.

Yet the drama is so precise, so delicately rendered: Shelley, who recorded this follow-up to her self-titled 2017 album in Iceland with long-time collaborator James Elkington, is never tempted into anything histrionic, as singer or writer. The imagery is elliptical and elegant, brief enough to be stitched into samplers yet hinting at whole novels. Strings flutter at the edges of ‘Cycle’, a song about a love that “hides in the dormant soil” like a moth; a piano gently stirs the curtain at the windows of ‘When What It Is’. Beautiful and inscrutable, it runs very deep indeed.

- By Jake White


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