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With hushed delicacy, Joan Shelley unleashes her most poetic and empathetic collection of songs yet

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Last month Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley released her fifth album, the eponymous Joan Shelley, the first she’s made outside of Kentucky. She cut the record in Chicago at the Wilco Loft with Jeff Tweedy as producer, but his presence is barely felt, which says something about her quiet confidence in her delicate and poetic folk rock. It’s the leanest, most restrained record of her career so far—the tracks feel intuitive, following a path that’s both spontaneous and intimate, with melodic shapes reflecting the empathetic rumination of her lyrics. In song after song she addresses a lover scarred or scared, afraid to succumb or settle in, and though she asks questions and makes tough observations—on “We’d Be Home” she sings, “’Cause you move your body like / A puppet on its line”—there’s an unmistakable generosity and tenderness to her meditations. The gorgeous arrangements circle around and caress her gossamer voice, at once strong and weightless, the guitars executing crisp acoustic arpeggios and strums accented here and there by gently devastating electric guitar. Tweedy adds some of that electric as well as bass, his son Spencer some drumming with brushes, and James Elkington alternates between guitar and keyboards, but the heavy lifting is done by Shelley and her regular accompanist, guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Together the two convey the lyric essence of each song, the guitar playing inextricably connected with the singing. They’ll perform as a duo here, though there’s no ruling out a guest appearance from one of the musicians who helped make this brilliantly understated record.   v

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