Joan Shelley by Joan Shelley (No Quarter Records, out now)
Review by Ian Preece
I’ve seen Joan Shelley live a couple of times now. On stage she’s relaxed, chatty and has a good line in self-deprecating humour. Her and Nathan Salsburg make a prepossessing and captivating couple; you don’t know what you’re going to get next – tales from the road, Salsburg’s attempts to hunt down old 78 records in Ireland, recollections of the Kentucky derby, all delivered in a laidback Louisville drawl. It was a cold March night, but such was the generated warmth, intensity and general fugginess of excited goodwill that someone even fainted in the back room of the Islington pub on their last UK tour a couple of years ago. And nodding out to the infectious, extended looping guitar figure from ‘Over and Even’ at the Lexington recently, the thought occurred that I could happily listen to Nathan Salsburg’s guitar playing all night. A few months before the Islington gig I’d been absolutely blown away by the LP of the same name – an incredibly beautiful record that seemed to mix a yearning wistfulness with a degree of breeziness; heartbreak and longing with the craggy landscapes, fogs and storms of the natural world; a weatherbeaten 1960s folksiness with the light and the dark – but not so much darkness that the stars couldn’t ‘shine brighter than the blues’ (to quote the opening track). It reminded me of how much I missed Nina Nastasia; it made me think that anyone who says the singer-songwriter genre is all used up and blown out doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Listening now as I type this to tracks like ‘No More Shelter’ and ‘Easy Now’ they sound as fresh as spring rain; as vital as the day I first put the needle on the record. In a nutshell Over and Even is a twenty-first-century Blue – better, in fact, for those of us who weren’t around in California in the sixties. Will Oldham was on the record; an early video of Shelley’s was shot entirely inside a car wash; the cover of the LP featured the shadowy outlines of Shelley and Salsburg standing on a dilapidated-looking old bridge in an arboreal setting, the air a blue and green hazy wash, pale sunlight trying to break through the foliage. For anyone who’d spent parts of their life ground down by it all, reading Raymond Carver and trying to find scarce glimpses of beauty in the small things in a world it’s just generally best to avoid, Over and Even seemed a crucial missive: you are not alone.
It’s taken a bit of adjusting, then, to the new record, Joan Shelley, her fifth solo LP. Just a first glimpse of the cover seemed to speak of a new intent: no woodland scene, no horses in the mist or Super-8 colours of the morning sun on a ramshackle back porch, but a striking chiaroscuro profile of Shelley that wouldn’t look out of place in the National Portrait Gallery. Being a Wilco fan, my fears this might indicate a new bold direction in production – a glossy sheen where before there’d been an understated and lovely looseness – were never really that serious. The LP was produced in Wilco’s Chicago Loft studio, and it’s true that Jeff Tweedy and Tom Schick behind the controls has resulted in an immaculate, deluxe-sounding, fully upholstered vehicle – but what, on first listen, might sound tight and pegged down slowly reveals its charms (especially on headphones). For instance, initially there feels a slight stiffness to the openings of ‘Where I’ll Find You’ and especially ‘Go Wild’ that brings to mind the immaculately clean, hyper-sweetened 1950s sound of some of the tracks on Yo La Tengo’s recent covers and obscurities album (when what you really wanted was a gritty blast of Wurlitzer) – and for some reason some of the early numbers (especially these two) remind me of afternoons round at my Nana’s after school listening to her collection of Roy Orbison 7-inches and mournful Everly Brothers B-sides on an old Dansette. But the hushed, brushed, jazzy drum strokes of the excellent Spencer Tweedy, and the warm guitar tones of Shelley/Salsburg/James Elkington, soon melt away any worries of anything sounding too staid or polished. And ‘Where I’ll Find You’ is a lovely number, which opens as a sort of Edward Hopper painting in song, suffused with light but also a deep melancholy – a Nighthawks or an Automat, the lonely lover standing in the wind beneath a lamppost – and proceeds with Shelley singing in a gentler country lilt, not unlike an old Laura Cantrell number of roses, separated lovers and the first world war. There’s a kind of rich, painterly, composed poise to the songwriting. Not that Shelley’s lyrics are ever particularly explicit: they tend to focus on relationships – love, expectation, commitment, maybe – and, as she has said herself, ‘It’s all about attraction and desire and the inevitable failure of a certain kind of love.’ ‘I Didn’t Know’ could be a backwards glance to simpler days, shallower waters, before the monumental swell of the ocean dashes too fragile a relationship on the rocks. ‘If the Storms Never Came’ rolls in under a purpling sky, guitars heavy with portent, the bleak emptiness of the ocean a desolate contrast to fruitful toil on land. There’s a similar, languid, bluesy pull to ‘I Got What I Wanted’ – it’s almost not too far a leap to imagine Nick Cave singing the rhetorical ‘didn’t I?’, infusing some of the darker numbers on the first side of the LP with a biblical intensity, reaching for the forbidden fruit in ‘Where I’ll Find You’.
If I were a proper music critic I’d be able to pinpoint exactly where James Elkington’s Mellotron and organ and Jeff Tweedy’s Therevox fill out what is already a beautifully cushioned sound, but I can’t – suffice to say it’s a superbly arranged record with a finely integrated sound palette: various gently plucked acoustic and electric guitars complementing the patina left by Spencer Tweedy’s supremely relaxed brush strokes.
The second side of the LP perhaps feels more like the Joan Shelley of the last two records. Well, the voice is still more central, the whole feel remains more minimalist, but ‘Push Me Up One More Time’ and the gorgeous ‘Wild Indifference’ could have been among the quieter (even) more introspective and quietly devastating vignettes from Over and Even (like ‘Lure and Line’), and ‘The Push and Pull’ is just sublime, Shelley’s hushed voice floating above the burbling stream of gently flowing guitar and Spencer Tweedy’s soft, puttering sticks. It’s a track – a whole album, in fact – I’ll be playing for years to come; it’s a record that’s perfect for quiet evenings in, late at night, but also for Sunday mornings, staring out at the party lights strung along the washing line in the rain.
Buy the record here.