Your humble narrator has mostly stayed out of the Linda Chorney/Americana-Grammy scandal. A Slytherin at heart as well as a fellow musician, it honestly didn't matter to us whether she gamed the system for the nomination or whether her music was worthy of the nod. A Taste of Honey beat Elvis Costello, and the day we read that we swore to never care about the Grammys ever again. Still, we have to agree with our colleague William Michael Smith when he said that Chorney's music was mushy, depthless Oprah fodder.
The opposite of Chorney's lack would be Houston's own Shellee Coley. Coley is part of the Magnolia Red label, which we've mentioned before turns out nothing but records of pure beauty. Her previous release, an EP called The Girl the Stencil Drew, was a somewhat light-hearted outing that nonetheless showed her incredible lyrical skill as well as her trademark longing voice.
It's been far too long since Coley has released anything, and as anyone who bought Chinese Democracy can tell you, waiting does not tend to put your fans in a good mood. However, we've visited Magnolia Red several times over the last year and heard snippets of Where It Began throughout its production, and even the early demos were evidence enough that the album would be one of, if not the best release of 2012 in Houston. Now that it's here, we feel the same way: If you buy only one album in 2012, then Where It Began should be it.[jump]
The songs are big people's music, not the frantic energy of the young or the dark plumbings of the tragic artiste. Coley tackles parenthood, the maintenance of a loving marriage, and the struggle to keep afloat in difficult times. Her songwriting is frighteningly mature, full of amazing little twists of phrase that turn every sentiment into a mantra.
It's the slight tinge of darkness, the hint of goth, that lends might to Coley's songs. Opening the album is the haunting "All That I Want." To take the song at its lyrical word, it's a simple song of hope for the love of your spouse to continue forever, a regular theme of Coley's.
However, where other artists might come across desperate, whiny, clingy, or even bitchy, she is able to bring to the forefront the deepest damage done in your heart by such doubts. She makes it into an existential examination of her core being, all the while reaffirming her own faith in love.
Masterfully produced by Jeffery Armstreet, "All I Want" features darkly sparse instrumentation underneath Coley's voice, and the tune echoes and circles around you to whisper affection and madness in your ear. The album closes in a similar manner with "Waiting" bookending Where it Began with brilliant, but uncomfortable prayers.
It's when Coley sings of her family that she sings most eloquently. "Cotton Dress" is the best of these tracks from a strictly musical standpoint, but it's "Conversations With Z" that has us tearing up on every listen. If you're not a parent, we don't know how you'll take it, but if you are it will be physically impossible not to feel trusting, little arms around you as Coley's ode to growing up ends in her bed comforting her daughter from a nightmare.
There is pretending to sincerity, indeed even to reality, and there is the real deal. Shellee Coley is alive in a way most of us can only dream of, and thank your favorite God someone put a guitar in her hands. Where It Began is the finest folk album we've ever heard.
One last point. At our day job, our boss is an amazing musician who has arranged for Hollywood. In general, when he walks past our desk while we're listening to music we're reviewing he stops for a second, shakes his head, and walks past. Where It Began is the only time he has ever asked, "Who is that? She could be a star."
Just for fun, we cued up Linda Chorney the next time he walked by. All we got was another head-shake.
We sat down with Shelley Coley to ask her about Where It Began. Click on over to Page 2 for the interview.