Published Jun 21, 2018There are only three musicians on British songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney's second solo album, Shelter: producer Thomas Bartlett, violinist Jordan Hunt and Chaney herself (on guitar, piano, pump organ, Rhodes, dobro and harmonium). That's fewer than on her 2015 debut, The Longest River, and marks a shift back to her solo sound after Offa Rex's The Queen of Hearts in 2017, which saw Chaney interpreting British folk revival songs with the Decemberists as her backing band.
Chaney retreated to an 18th century family cottage in North Yorkshire to write Shelter, and though it was recorded in New York City, the quiet arrangements serve to maintain the intimacy of Chaney's songs.
Being left alone to write in a quiet cottage in rural England sounds romantic, but on the opening title track, Chaney sings, almost as if singing a written letter or a poem over meditative solo guitar, of the internal toil you can be left with when you're alone; of the need to befriend and face your own demons. "When I came to that place I did not feel / The way I was supposed to," she sings. Chaney wrote eight out of the ten songs on Shelter — a record for her so far — but on "Shelter," she admits it did not come easy. "I dismiss each kernel as / A start I cannot finish," she sings.
Chaney's music draws from folk, classical and traditional music, and her songs have a contemporary vantage point that glances forwards and backwards in time. "Colin and Clem," played on pump organ and harmonium, tells the story about an at times awkward yet ultimately meaningful visit to a little country church, while on standout piano/Rhodes song "Dragonfly," Chaney evocatively reflects on childhood, innocence and loss. "Mother wears old silk dresses / And hides those pretty eyes / Always late to pick me up / From the moment she arrives / I look back to see that someone stole her time," Chaney sings.
Some of Chaney's songs and stories are borrowed — "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," for example, is an homage to the classic American novel — and others are love songs, quiet moments of lightness, longing, joy and contentment. Gratitude comes through gently on "Roman Holiday," which ends with the sound of bells from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
With the two covers Chaney includes back-to-back, she juxtaposes two sides of her musical personality, releasing the tension built in Shelter's most esoteric, challenging classical performance (Henry Purcell's "O Solitude") with the relative ease of her more casually sombre cover of Frank Harford and Tex Ritter's "Long Time Gone."
Chaney moves with ease from nearly operatic to contemporary and casual and sounds equally at home. (Nonesuch)