Olivia Chaney – Shelter (Nonesuch)

Olivia Chaney’s second album is an accomplished and smooth, if unexciting, collection of chamber folk ballads. The follow-up to 2015 debut The Longest River treads much of the same ground as that album – Chaney’s soft elegant vocals, sparse acoustic backing, mid-tempo carefully dignified compositions.

In a world where “folk” is such a blooming international pop term, Chaney’s music is distinctly and consciously English. The world in her lyrics revolves around family, love, country churches, and historical tradition. Her accented voice seems tailored to traditional storytelling ballads, and the twists and turns of melody in her compositions fit snugly into the musical language of Britain’s folk history. This creates clear expectations of the album, appealing as it is to mainly folk enthusiasts looking for an album that is both modern singer-songwriter and strongly tied to older musical lineages. At the end of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn she checks her connections by singing a bit of the traditional Irish popular song Molly Malone – “Crying cockles and mussels, alive alive-o…”

This is not just “folk” as the umbrella term for singer-songwriter acoustic-guitar-based music, though Chaney’s personal lyrical writing certainly does fit into that as well. Unlike much modern music with that label, hers distinctly avoids shots at crossover appeal or universality. The world of Shelter is insular and small-town. The world of one woman’s words, family, loves and pains. As she sings on Colin And Clem, “She is young, he is modern/She comes from a time forgotten”.

The sparse instrumentation, consisting of simple background piano, picked acoustic guitar and delicate orchestration, keeps the focus firmly on Chaney’s voice, naturally first and foremost in the simple reverb-y mix. Her lullaby-esque singing is great, carrying high lilting melodies beautifully, though it occasionally feels overwrought – it would be nice to hear her paring down the meticulously crafted syllable-by-syllable vocal delivery every now and then for a more direct voice.

As far as the specific modern-traditional folk-mother sound she aims for though, it is as good as anyone you will hear, encompassing the role absolutely. Still though, about halfway into the album I begin to find the voice gratingly sugary.

The two standouts for me come back-to-back on side two. First is the sparse and haunting rendition of Henry Purcell’s O Solitude (Chaney previously covered the 17th-century English composer on her debut album.) It features a ghostly vocal and a guitar picking part that sounds truly like Chaney is picking it alone in her tower.

Then, of her original compositions, the highlight by far is Long Time Gone. The strange staggering piano part has much more character than most of the album’s instrumental backing, and the brief scratchy violins are used perfectly. The composition is her most direct, memorable, and genuine, in the vein of simple “when I leave” ballads. This is the only moment on the album she drops her vocal-training guard to let out a more direct and under-wrought vocal performance, resulting in a more emotionally affecting track.

Even with these successes there is little variation throughout the ten tracks, divided into piano songs and acoustic guitar songs. Without exception the songs are mellow and mid-tempo, featuring stately high vocal melodies which blend the tracks together as you listen through the entire collection. If you love Chaney’s sound, then the album is a sure-fire success because of its consistency. If you don’t, then one song is enough to give you an idea of all of them. What’s inarguable however is her niche talent for connecting the past and the present in beautifully sung folk songs.

Ruben Mita.