A couple years ago, Joan Shelley released one of the best folk albums of this young century. Coming off her promising 2014 breakthrough Electric Ursa, she pared the instrumentation down to the bare essentials for 2015’s masterpiece Over and Even. Though the album features fantastic collaborators like James Elkington, Rachel Grimes, and Will Oldham (each of them a great artist in their own right,) you’d be forgiven for remembering it as just Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Salsburg’s laid-back but masterful guitar work serves as the perfect counterpart to Shelley’s enchanting voice and buttery melodies.
Shelley’s self-titled album, released on Friday, continues down that path of simple and atmospheric folk that reveals further depths on each listen. It was recorded at Wilco’s The Loft with Jeff Tweedy serving as a deft but light-handed producer. Tweedy, along with his drummer son, plays a few instruments and Elkington shows up again but, as with their last album, Shelley and Salsburg steal the show.
From the first seconds of the record, you’re transported to another place. Salsburg’s nimble fingers effortlessly dance upon the strings, flowing in the background as Shelley’s dreamy, melancholy lilt floats above. That lovely, mellow mood wraps itself around you like an timeworn quilt or a hug from a old friend. It stays with you throughout the album, unperturbed whether the song is a ballad or one of the more upbeat folky rockers.
Salsburg continues to show that he’s one of the best guitarists in folk & roots music today. He’s an acoustic fingerpicker but more in the style of Nic Jones and the 60s British folkies than the Fahey-inspired American Primitive style that’s popular today. (Check out Salsburg covering Jones to get a feel for the serious chops these guys have.) His gift for writing unique yet straightforward and just damn beautiful melodies is unmatched. His steady thumb gives each song a driving energy and propulsion as those melodies coolly drift by. Shelley’s voice and songwriting continue to flourish as well. Her lyrics paint wistful, calming portraits of relationships coming together and falling apart, loves and friends lost and found, and the simple joys and implicit sorrows of life on a grand and everyday level.
Five of the album’s eleven songs are available on Spotify but I highly recommend spending the money to get the complete album. More than just a collection of songs, this is a fully realized album that will keep you company on the dark rainy nights and the bright Sunday mornings for years to come.