Essential New Music: Joan Shelley’s “Joan Shelley”

This Louisville, Ky., songwriter has given us some of the most purely gorgeous folk music of the decade, and her fifth album—which betrays no especial justification for its eponymity, apart from being representatively excellent—is certainly no exception. She’s joined again by frequent associates Nathan Salsburg and James El- kington (whose own recordings are also well worth seeking out) and by those industrious Tweedy boys, Spencer and Jeff (the latter also produces)—all contributing to a meticulously clean, understated ensemble backing that perfectly suits the calm purity of Shelley’s singing and her softly luminous songs: timeless, elemental melodies that gesture toward traditional British and American folk styles while rarely coming across as particularly rootsy or antiquarian. It’s all such lovely, elegantly refined stuff that it’s easy to sink under the spell of its warm, somnolent glow. But then she’ll come up with a resonant little chorus hook (such as the one on “The Push And Pull”) or a subtly wrenching, yearning lament (“I Didn’t Know,” “I Got What I Wanted”) and perk you right back up again.

—K. Ross Hoffman

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