Joan Shelley: Over and Even

Louisville singer-songwriter shines on a masterfully turned set of folk reflections

"It's a subtle kind of love/It's a simple kind of glory," declares Joan Shelley, in her incandescent alto, at the close of the Louisville, Kentucky singer's third solo LP. Subtlety and simplicity also define this set of acoustic songs. But like the verse, the terms understate the power and beauty of the subject at hand.

A commanding poet, Shelley populates her songs with elements unmoored by time: fog, forests, beds, "a mother's wet tongue," the scent of coffee and sweat, the taste of honey and wine. She draws them in a bell-toned voice that never shouts and rarely uses vibrato, over melodies rooted in Anglo-American folk tradition — the English singers June Tabor and the late Sandy Denny especially come to mind. Shelley also has highly empathetic foils: her guitarist and collaborator, the quietly virtuosic Nathan Salsburg, knows just when not to play a note, and her harmony singers, including her well-regarded Kentucky neighbor Will Oldham, similarly know when to stay in close and precisely when to drop back.

True to folk tradition, these songs are not for laughs: fruit rots, winter blows in, friends scatter, loves fade, and death is a constant shadow. In "Not Over By Half," the singer offers an aging friend an early eulogy; the narrator of "No More Shelter," it soon becomes clear, may actually be dead herself. But as Shelley consoles a bummed-out friend (or conceivably, herself in the mirror), "There's a gold in your eyes blooming out through the black." That image describes this magnificent record to a T.