Olivia Chaney’s Shelter is a humble, somewhat sparse album that will captivate anyone who gives it the appropriate time. Stately but still emotionally resonant, it’s a masterclass in updating folk music.
The challenge of making folk modern is one Chaney tackles head-on, both lyrically and musically. Highlight "Colin and Clem,” about lovers from opposing backgrounds, specifically focuses on tradition in a secular world. The conclusion that Chaney comes to is that the two sides can coexist, religion giving structure and meaning to a rapidly shifting world: "Never been a puritan / Never liked their wine much / But I like the way her mother gives / Each guest a simple task/ For the future, for the past."
For an album Chaney describes as "Simplicity versus sophistication... [and] folk culture versus modernity," she couldn’t have found better collaborators in Thomas Bartlett and Pat Dillett. Bartlett is an underrated force in all kinds of modern music, contributing production to records by The National and his contemporary folk band The Gloaming. Dillett is a frequent collaborator with Bartlett’s (working with the aforementioned groups) whose specialty seems to be pristine, yet still intimate, mixes.
The standout, and one of the best folk songs of 2018, is first single “IOU." Beginning with an electric dobro riff, it evolves into a chorus worthy of The Staves or even one of Florence Welch's more recent, stripped-down songs. Chaney's narrator gradually realizes that she was not vulnerable enough in a relationship, as she learns to "bare weakness open / There hides strength." There, "It's been too long that you've held me in your grip" becomes "that I've held you in my grip / So come, make peace." It's easy to miss, but like the rest of this album, it becomes powerful when given proper care and attention.