Album Review: Joan Shelley, 'Like the River Loves the Sea'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

Si Kahn’s contributions to American folk music have been innumerable—he was once called the best songwriter to come along since John Prine. Yet few are likely, without being told, to catch the Si Kahn reference on the latest album from Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley.

Like the River Loves the Sea—Shelley’s beautiful, refreshing new album, out Aug. 30—tips its hat to a line from Kahn’s song, “Like Butter Loves Bread,” itself taken from a Jack tale Kahn learned from a theater troupe in Kentucky.

This little connection to back home makes sense for an album full of little connections between whatever is happening in Shelley’s life and heart, and the place where she was born and raised. Shelley traveled to Iceland to record it, and many of the songs—“Haven,” “Cycle,” “Awake,” and especially “High on a Mountain”—balance a sort of focus and love for what’s present with a homesickness for what once was.

And somehow, despite the distance that separates these two locations, geographically, listeners are gifted an aural balance of the chilly Icelandic air and the quiet height of the Kentucky hills in each of these airy tracks.

Shelley’s voice comes like a sudden welcome breeze. As summer wafts into the background now and the trees begin to turn, Like the River Loves the Sea comes off like past and present all rolled up together.

Though the album is fully populated with various instruments—percussion, strings, various styles of guitar and keyboard—the songs are not overwrought nor heavily produced. Everything feels close, personal, quiet. Even “Coming Down for You,” with its more assertive arrangement and almost-trotting rhythm comes off tentative and hushed.

“No one taught you to pull in close when danger was near,” she sings as the guitar and percussion seems to be pulling her voice in another direction. But by the time the stanza closes, it’s Shelley’s vocals that have come to the fore: “When you come down hard, as you always do, I’m saving a part of me just to come down to you.”

It’s refreshing to hear music so beautifully composed and thought-through, where the production follows the lead of the song. Given all this, there’s no telling why Joan Shelley isn’t more of a household name so far. Perhaps Like the River will change that.

Whether it does or not, it’s a lovely companion for the coming of autumn, when the colors begin to burst just as the darkness grows. Turn it up, hold on and, as Shelley sings halfway through the disc, “try to see the beauty in all the fading.”

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Like the River Loves the Sea is available now via No Quarter Records now at iTunes and Amazon.

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