To tell you why I loved Shellee Coley's latest album, Songs Without Bridges, first I need to tell you about James Caronna. Both artists are people I discovered after getting to know Jeffery Armstreet at Red Tree Recording Studio, and both produce a similar type of Americana-flavored acoustic pop that is one of my favorite genre types.
In Caronna's case his first album Everybody Wants to be in Love kind of, well, sucked. Still, I kept tabs on him because you never know when someone is going to become something different. Well, Caronna did after making a bitter and public split with his religion and transforming the resulting angst into one of my favorite musical moments of 2013.
"I mentally said, 'Fuck it!", Caronna says via email. "I no longer let other people dictate the content of my art. The church was doing that to me, I left them wrote for two years and the album is what I came up with.
Now, Coley has always been brilliant and I loved her 2012 album Where It All Began for all its empty glory. Coley sang quiet love songs and grownup tunes about parenthood that were soothing and glorious. But as I listen to Bridges now I realize that she was suffering from the same problem as Caronna, just in an opposite direction.
Both their initial releases were albums full of answers, and answers are boring. It's questions that are the real adventure, and as Coley, who let her desire to sing more openly about her faith mildew for fear of being labeled a Christian artist, comes out of her shell to ask those questions she takes her art to new heights.
It's definitely an album of faith, and the good kind of faith at that. Too many "Christian" albums these days are nothing but self-congratulatory circle-jerks that do nothing but bling out how awesome being tight with Big G is. It's the soccer-mom equivalent of a party anthem, and it blows chunks.
A real song of faith? That comes from a broken place. It comes from a person trying hard to grow in a cracked sidewalk, and that's why Bridges works.
It opens in a desolate place with the old hymn by Phillip Bliss, "It Is Well." Coley sings it completely a cappella with a desperate, pleading tone that grabs you right down in the soul before moving onto a cover of Folk Family Revival's "Shade from the Storm."
I don't say this sort of thing very often, but Coley's cover actually tops the original. I wouldn't go so far as to say that she's got a better voice than Mason Lankford, but the way she sings the tune is amazing.
Take the way she tackles the third line in the first verse, "Everbody's in a hurry, they're just looking for somebody to follow." Coley puts this amazing beat between "fol" and 'low" that is a complete mindblast. For the briefest second you think she's saying everybody's looking for somebody to fall, and low and that, until your mind recalibrates and changes the meaning back to the original lyric.
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It's a beautiful trick that sets a very unique tone. We're watching for the failure of others as they watch for our own weaknesses, but we're also seeking a path up and out. By acknowledging these base moments Coley makes her faith songs as real and raw as a late-career Johnny Cash tune.
These are the tracks that make Bridges ten times Coley's last record. She's free from constraints and willing to take chances. There's "Open Skies," another call to Christ where Coley has the cojones to compare herself both to sincere disciples and Judas the betrayer. She takes on the base nature of mankind with her eyes on the skyward prize, and it speaks even to me, the staff Satanist.
In fact, when Coley returns to the type of songs I loved best on Where it All Began I actually dislike it for disrupting the theme. I can appreciate "Free" and "Just You" as a fellow parent watching a kid grow up so fast, but they feel more like B-sides from 2012 than part of this new direction.
By far the crowning achievement is the final track, "To the Water." Almost every other song on the album features just Coley on guitar singing, but "To the Water" is one of the grand Americana soundscapes where Armstreet excels as a producer. Banjos and a minimalist but brutal bass line drop in and lift Coley up towards the salvation she's spent the previous seven songs craving.
I haven't heard anything so powerful since Lyle Lovett's rendition of "I Will Rise Up." It's the sort of song that I want playing in earbuds as I walk through a demon-filled wasteland shooting down the agents of Satan. If Christ's nail holes could be given voice, this is exactly what the song would sound like. There's alcohol in my house that produces less of a kick, and it's Coley's finest moment not only on the record, but of all time.
Songs Without Bridges is available via BandCamp.
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