To American ears, the quaint British folk songs of centuries past may seem like a dutiful exercise in revivalism. Granted, English bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle and the Incredible String Band did their best to bring those archival trappings into a modern pop context, but their followers were an isolated following at best. And there was enough of a buzz to propel any one of those ensembles into the upper reaches of the charts.
For those that delve into this essence of true folk as proscribed by those artists, Olivia Chaney brings it all back home.
Chaney posses a pristine vocal, delicate to the point that it demands one lean in and listen. Shelter, her latest album, and second for Nonesuch, is tender in tone with arrangements that rarely rise above a whisper, not surprising considering the fact that her accompaniment consists of little more than scant traces of piano, guitar, violin and occasional mellotron. The lyrics are precious and precise as well (“I spied a dragonfly/The size of my fist/Like the one I’d drawn/Carefully as a child”), but it’s posturing, not pretence, that proves so enticing.
The most appropriate comparison for those who are aware, would be to the late Sandy Denny, one of the acclaimed queens of British folk and former lead singer and songwriter of the aforementioned Fairports. To be sure, the songs recall the choices that found her in a decidedly mellow mood or moment of deep desire. “Shelter,” “Dragonfly” and “IOU” hew to that traditional stance and the sheer beauty imbued in these tunes provides an uncommon degree of intimacy.
While the tone varies very little overall in its hushed, lullaby-like laments, the descriptively titled “O Solitude” suggests a slightly exotic, middle eastern influence. That may be the result of early influences and the fact she was born in Florence, Italy before her family moved to Oxford England where she was surrounded by a wealth of disparate musical influences that ran the gamut from opera to Anglophile.
Later, she expanded her listening choices to include nearly every genre imaginable, attended the London’t prestigious Royal Academy of Music, and stepped out of her sonic environs to collaborate with the Decemberists on a project dubbed Offa Rex. Although the sonic diversity isn’t all that evident here, the intellectual input comes through in her lyrics, imagery and imagination.
Shelter may be a bit low key for some people’s liking. It’s more a Sunday morning record than one to affect a party vibe on Saturday night. Yet, when bit of solace is sought in the twilight time that follows, this Shelter provides a most pleasant respite.