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Album of the Month: Joan Shelley - The Spur

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The remarkability of music, or whatever art you choose, to be a place of solace in an uncertain world is truly a wonder in this life. Your medium can be the place you survey time, process the events around you, reflect on how you got here and ponder what’s next. The folk singer-songwriter Joan Shelley uses her latest album, The Spur, to explore her life in rural Kentucky as a beacon amongst a land and time where hope and light can sometimes seem dim, finding the little bright spots in routines, community, and progress.

The creation of the album spans an eventful two years in Shelley’s life: the album was written from fall 2019 through fall 2020, during a time where she and fellow folk music lifer and then-partner Nathan Salsburg settled into their farm life home and discovered they were expecting their first child, with recording coming in 2021 after the birth of their daughter and becoming married. This mixture of big, positive personal events, plus the universal, jarring experience of the pandemic striking, created a pensive atmosphere for Shelley and company, her songs exploring humanity from her own eyes and others. In “Home,” she takes a look at the place she now lives, a former tree farm, and sees the idea of home through the eyes of a child through time, from a place you long for to somewhere to break free from, and back again. Even in coming back, the threshold leading there still presents a question: “Stalled in the driveway / The way in, or the way out?”. Elsewhere on the album, you can enter “Like The Thunder” in the list of great love songs, with Shelley, Salsburg, and guest drummer Spencer Tweedy making a rollicking, jubilant ode to romance taking root and growing strong. Salsburg’s warm electric guitar interludes are a bright spot here, exactly as triumphant as the joy of love is.

Shelley and Salsburg together create the core of the album, but many other voices make the songs really come alive. Of the handful of duets included, my personal favorite is “Amberlit Morning,” with Bill Callahan joining for a rumination of the wonders and images of childhood, and how hard it can be to carry that sentiment with you through time. Callahan’s weathered baritone is a stunning foil to Shelley’s clear contralto, their voices weaving as a mirror of the sweet ideals of youth and the starker realities of age. Throughout the album, horn and string arrangements from producer/multi-instrumentalist James Elkington push Shelley’s songs to new heights, the settings at times sparse and spectral, and other times lush and elegant.

Life can often bring a curious mixture of things together, presenting us with a conundrum of how to parse it all out, to balance the good with the bad, to reconcile joy with unease. Shelley has plenty of new light in her life, and also plenty of darker places to shine it into alongside the rest of us. Let us try to take her lead and bring it all together, to do our best to keep a hand on hope as we venture out into the next unknown; I think the album’s title track brings the spirit best: “Be the spur in my side / Be the shade on my eyes / All my friends and my enemies too / I'm with you, I'm with you.”

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Evan Miller is a percussionist, lover of sound, and is probably buying too many cassette tapes online right now. Evan got his start in radio in 2012 at WWSU at Wright State University, where he was studying percussion performance. He followed through with both endeavors and eventually landed a lucrative dual career playing experimental music at home and abroad, and broadcasting those sounds to unsuspecting listeners Sunday nights on The Outside. Maintaining a connection to normal music, Evan also plays drums in bands, and hosts WYSO's weekday music show Excursions. When not doing something music-related, Evan is most likely listening to podcasts or watching food videos at home with his cat.