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Shelter (Nonesuch)

Queen Of Hearts. the album English folksinger/songwriter Olivia Chaney made with American rock band The Decemberists last year, under the name Offa Rex, was at times almost raucous, regularly busy and well detailed.

In its spot-on adaptation of the days when folk met rock in Pentangle/Incredible String Band/Fairport Convention mode, Offa Rex pulled in traditional tales (of miners, maidens and more) with modernish sounds, smudges of psychedelia and power.

In her second solo album, Chaney skips away from that, returning to the spare and elegant style of her debut, including its mixture of timeless folk, the classical “songbook” (once again turning to Henry Purcell) and the early years of the singer/songwriter as the ‘60s turned into the 1970s. The latter element noteworthy too for how Chaney’s compositions dominate now.

The focus on Shelter is almost always on Chaney’s voice which is as far from a standard 2018 instrument as you might find: its operatic training bringing a formality and a strength, that is balanced by the ease with which she can display (rather than promote) emotion, and a delicacy that never falls into whimsy.

On Colin And Clem, for example, Chaney has the rhythm of a punt on the river (gentle but inexorable) in a song which doesn’t strain for attractiveness; for Dragonfly she takes a turn around the room with the rhythm and small surges of a court dance; and then in O Solitude (the Purcell song) there is precision and reserve, the melody given its space.

Amusingly, for those who might restrict the “folk” options, Chaney follows the Purcell with a song originally performed by Tex Ritter, a man who knew both kinds of music, country and western. That song, Long Time Gone, retains almost no shades of its origins, feeling more like a lost lament from the English canon, especially with Chaney’s phrasing.

Instrumentally, the options don’t range far from the keyboard (Chaney playing piano, harmonium, pump organ, electric piano, as well as guitar and dobro), with some violin and, in one song, church bells. But then their role is genuinely accompaniment, underscoring the vocal work in the main, for chamber pop that eschews the grandiosity usually associated with that term.

It’s all unfussy, almost plainspoken, but then neither Chaney nor the songs have any interest in promoting themselves. They don’t have to; it all flows from one to the other to the listener.

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