Electric Ursa is an album of strong words softly spoken. Created by Kentucky-based singer-songwriter Joan Shelley, it is a bare night sky of feeling and faded scene-setting, all pared down to the finest note — the finest, most evocative note. In a recent interview, Shelley told Jim Carroll of The Irish Times, “Anytime you get together with a band, everybody wants to play and I think my band are very patient because I keep saying ‘let’s play less’. I want them to play to the size of the songs and a lot of my songs are smaller.”
The short collection is compiled of eight tracks. I cannot decide whether “First of August” is sad to the bone, or simply beautiful. The emotions it evokes join-up at the edges. Neither can I decide on the level of parting that is taking place. “Mama knows you gotta go, son/Sister’s gonna miss you when you go.” The last three words are gently pulled at. Is this an enveloping, grieving goodbye, or is it bittersweet moving on?
It is that misted ambiguity that holds the key to Electric Ursa. Shelley paints her words on these melodies, and the music slows you. That long-shadowed, summer evening stillness makes you pause. But just as you start to trust your senses, and hold her words responsible for that ache you have developed, “Remedios” will play in front of you. The words are replaced by an absent-minded hum. Banjos pad it, gentle percussion grounds it. Evening light would allow Robert Louis Stevenson to write children’s verses to it.
That richness is relentless. In “Rising Air”, there is a languid Sharon Van Etten-like intensity. The piano gently sweeps you into the song; the drums give you something vaguely solid to land on. And please don’t think the album will leave you heavy-hearted. “How lovely I wished and you came/ means everything’s right” are the opening lyrics to “Long Way to Night.” Who wouldn’t want to feel safe inside those words?
This album is so beautiful, it stopped me. Just stopped me in my tracks.
Released on No Quarter, Electric Ursa is Joan Shelley’s second solo album. It was recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, and includes collaborations with guitarist Nathan Salsburg and other Louisville musicians. It was mixed by Kevin Ratterman, with photography by Mickie Winters and DMM.