Shellee Coley, Songs Without Bridges
“How much is enough?” That seems to be the question Conroe-dwelling singer/songwriter Shellee Coley’s trying to answer with her latest album, Songs Without Bridges. I mean, you write a song on just a guitar or piano or what-have-you, and maybe you go into a studio and flesh it out with a full band, drums, bass, strings, harmony vocals, handclaps, etc., etc., until that little song’s been transformed into something else.
Is all that truly necessary, though? Maybe it is for some, it’s true; there’s nothing wrong with dropping layer upon layer of sound onto a song, and maybe some songs can’t really do without that. For her part, Coley seems determined to throw all that out the window and go with the least amount of instrumentation and studio trickery possible, and thankfully, it works. It works beautifully — so well, in fact, that I have a hard time envisioning any of the songs on here (well, almost any, but that’s for later) as “full” songs. They’re damn near perfect the way they are.
Unlike Coley’s previous album, where her songs were beefed up and made to sound much more a like a “band” recording, Songs Without Bridges is stripped-down and minimal, just her stunning voice and a delicate, loosely-held guitar. And that’s not a bad thing, not at all, because it brings Coley’s voice and lyricism right up to the front.
Coley begins, appropriately, with nothing but her own voice on opening track “It Is Well,” a song that’s one part church hymn and one part “Star-Spangled Banner” being sung out over a reverent hush at a ballgame. It’s a gorgeous, ethereal, echoing a cappella piece that makes a shiver run up and down my spine, serene and proud and glacially peaceful all at once.
From there she steps into an utterly fragile, beautiful cover of Folk Family Revival’s “Shade from the Storm,” taking the already-great original and making it almost an elegy, with just her vocals and guitar; I’m reminded of Mirah, particularly with the doubled vocals and nimble but low-key guitar. “Free” is wonderfully folky, but yearning and a little bitter beyond the prettiness of the melody. Coley simultaneously wishes her life could’ve gone down a different road and acknowledges the things she loves right here and now.
The next track, “Just You,” is a handful of thoughtful, sweet-voiced words of advice to a child (a son, I’m guessing?) to try to help them through the world ahead. The quiet-quiet harmony vocals make me think of Azure Ray, as does the ending of “Shade from the Storm.” “Open Skies” is more countryish than the rest, with a bit of a dusty, windswept feel to it, while “Sing to Me” is hopeful and shy, a kind of a story-song that’s reminiscent of ’70s folk.
Oddly, the next track, “Beauty Here,” brings to mind Jonah Matranga’s various recorded efforts, especially his last few Onelinedrawing albums. It’s somber and downcast, and completely bare-bones — Coley’s guitar and voice and song, and that’s it, nothing else. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to hear a resemblance to Matranga’s stuff, actually, considering how minimal his own recording setup has been over the years. When you’ve got a good song and a good voice, you really don’t need anything else.
Now, having said that, there’s the final track on Songs Without Bridges, “To the Water,” which pretty well disregards the paradigm that informs the rest of it. I heard the song initially about a year ago, I believe, and was mightily impressed by it, hearing it almost as a beautiful, drifting melding of Celtic folk and Appalachian mountain music.
Oh, and it’s the only track here with an actual band on it. The shift comes as a welcome one, truthfully; I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been nearly holding my breath for the previous seven tracks, only feeling able to break the quiet when the mandolin and fiddle came wavering in gently. I wasn’t missing those other instruments, not really, but hearing them lets some air back into the room, so to speak.
Still, I think it’s fairly clear that Coley’s proved what she’d set out to prove. While a song like “To the Water” is great, truly, she doesn’t need that full band with all the bells and whistles. All she really needs is that beautiful, beautiful voice, a guitar, and her songs, because those songs are stunning no matter how they’re framed.