Caught by the River

Like The River Loves The Sea

Andy Childs | 24th August 2019

Andy Childs mulls over the new USA-written, Iceland-recorded album from Kentucky’s Joan Shelley, out on No Quarter Records next week.

I know it probably shouldn’t have, but this album arrived as a complete revelation to me. Somehow, Joan Shelley’s previous five albums and mini-album of covers have passed me by, well below my idiosyncratic and mostly disfunctional radar. My loss no doubt. I haven’t yet investigated those records — partly because I want to savour them in the fullness of time, but mainly because this new album, Like The River Loves The Sea, has snared me in a seemingly endless listening loop. As soon as the beguiling melody of the last track ‘Any Day Now’ fades away, I’m straight back to the brief, gentle opening song ‘Haven’ with its simple acoustic guitar and pristine vocals that set the tone for the rest of the record.

Joan Shelley is from Louisville, Kentucky and the 12 songs here are bound up in comfort in, and connection to, her home state – its landscape, its seasons, and its people. As the press release says : there’s a saying that goes “when the world comes to an end, I want to be in Kentucky where it’s always five years behind”. The fact that the record was somewhat surprisingly recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland perhaps gives Shelley the distance and space to gain perspective on the emotional ties that she has to Kentucky. Certainly her songs are precisely honed vignettes – reflective and heart-felt, and her singing is graceful, purposeful and beautifully recorded. The overall feel is of a relaxed but focused collection of songs with not a wasted word or note.

Anyone familiar with the excellent Oxford American magazine annual music issues (with accompanying CD) will recall the Kentucky issue of two years ago and, probably like me, will have been astounded by the variety of music that has emerged from that state since the late 20s. It’s been a melting pot of musical traditions and idioms – folk music from Ireland and Britain, traditional music from disparate parts of Europe, African influences, and of course its homegrown country music. Joan Shelley is very obviously in tune with Kentucky’s eclectic musical heritage as its strains can be heard throughout her music. But she’s a traditionalist who cannot be constrained by casually employed labels such as folk-singer or country singer or, even more gratuitously, Americana artist. She simply writes memorable, sentient songs and sings them in the style that most naturally suits them.

I have lived with this album for a month now and I can honestly say that there isn’t a track here that I haven’t gone back to time and time again to marvel at its construction, sentiment, delivery and superb arrangement. The instrumental backing throughout is understated – acoustic guitar mostly, some harmony singing, and occasional banjo, strings and dobro. But it’s Shelley’s voice that illuminates the record – crystal clear and dancing and floating across the music. My favourite tracks (at the moment) are the unhurried ‘Teal’ with its chorus you won’t stop humming, ‘The Fading’ with the sort of perfect textural sound that I last heard on a Ry Cooder record, and the exquisite ‘High On The Mountain’ which, probably because I’ve played it so often, has now taken on the mantle of a classic in my mind. Really though it’s an album to play the old-fashioned way – all the way through from beginning to end. It’s a truly magical, beautiful record – one to immersive yourself in and submit to.

Coincidentally, my current reading is Wendell Berry’s recent collection of stories Stand By Me, set in a small farming community in the Kentucky River Valley. The combined effect of that book and this record is highly seductive and effective in dispelling some of the negative impressions of rural America that we have become acquainted with in recent times.


Like The River Loves The Sea is out on 30/08. Order a copy here via Bandcamp.