What does it sound like?:
Olivia Chaney’s first album, ‘The Longest River’, released in 2015, was a work of huge promise. Since then she’s worked with The Decemberists on the Offa Rex album, and the Kronos Quartet on their Folk Songs record. Now, her second solo record, ‘Shelter’ sees her spreading her wings as a songwriter, and more than fulfilling that promise. Here is a collection of songs bound together by echoing themes and narratives, in a production by Thomas Bartlett which seems simple but in fact in its simplicity and lack of adornment is utterly compelling.
In the title track Chaney pleads plaintively for the listener to persist in giving her shelter from her demons, over a simple acoustic guitar backing. In Dragonfly, the sight of a dragonfly in New York takes her back to memories of her childhood, this time over piano and strings. The loveliness of the chorus belies the hints of darkness in a lyric thinking back to her mother ‘I look back to see that someone stole her time’. ‘A Tree in Brooklyn’ opens with the arresting matter of fact line ‘Father’s a drinker, rolls down the stairs’, and tells of a close relationship with his daughter, and a mother who’s convinced he’s cheating on her.
The lyrics speak of vulnerability; of coming to terms with uncomfortable memories or relationships turned sour. They evoke a world of country churches, suppressed and hidden emotions, disfunctional, possibly abusive marriages and alcohol; of romantic holidays in Rome and young love that could go either way. The songs are snapshot short stories and her world feels like that of an Irish writer such as William Trevor.
Chaney gives us two cover versions amongst her own songs. She performed a song by 17th century composer Henry Purcell on her debut album, and there’s one here, the beautiful ‘O Solitude’ which talks of solitude as ‘my sweetest choice’. Brilliantly she follows it immediately with Tex Ritter’s ‘Long Time Gone’, recorded by the Everly Brothers in the 50s. from ‘O my solitude adore’ we’re straight into ‘You cheated me and left me lonely’. It’s a measure of Chaney’s quality as a singer that she utterly owns these two songs written about 300 years apart, and of her quality as a songwriter that her own compositions sit so comfortably alongside them.
The vulnerability and ambivalence in the lyrics is counteracted by the strength and clarity of Chaney’s pure soprano voice. It’s a magnificent instrument, given plenty of space to shine over a backing which is generally simple acoustic guitar or piano with some ornamentation from subdued strings harmonium or backing vocals. It’s a voice which asserts confidence, calmness and shape – whatever she’s singing about this is not someone to be messed with.
There are comparisons there to be made if you want to – with Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, or a contemporary like Laura Marling. But Olivia Chaney is her own talent and with this record she’s made something rather wonderful.
What does it all *mean*?
I think it means that whatever shit may be going on, music will tell the truth and win out
Goes well with…
It was mostly written in a cottage on the Yorkshire moors apparently, and it does have that sense of a bleak but beautiful vista about it. So maybe earphones, and a bracing lonely country walk under clear blue wintry skies
Might suit people who like…
Oblique lyrics, spare arrangements, a beautiful voice