This kind of stripped-down folk is well within Tom Brosseau and Angela Correa's wheelhouse, but you might find yourself wishing they stepped outside of that a little more.
Listening to Les Shelleys, it's hard not to be charmed by Tom Brosseau and Angela Correa. Both accomplished musicians in their own right -- Brosseau with his solo work and Correa in her band Correatown -- the two have been singing partners in Los Angeles for a while now, and Les Shelleys is a carefully selected cross-section of their recorded output. The two have recorded countless folk songs at Brosseau's home, straight to minidisc recorder, and the results are hushed and intimate.
For most of the record, you'll only faintly hear Brosseau's acoustic guitar, with the exception of "Green Door", which is built on thigh slaps and finger snaps and nothing else. Over these simply constructed tunes, the two can harmonize sweetly. Brosseau's high warble meshes well with Correa's breathy voice, and on tracks like "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" and the excellent "Pastures O' Plenty", the two manage a balance between the charm of the song's intimacy and the melancholy of its subject matter.
This focus on voice is partly due to the recording (the minidisc doesn't always pick up what Brosseau's plucking), but it also seems intentional. They mix it up just enough, with Brosseau and Correa each taking short solo turns singing -- in fact, Correa's singing alone on both "The Band Played On" and "Deep Purple" are album highlights -- but this album rises and falls with the way these two sing together.
Of course, what also matters to that equation is what they're singing, and some of their riskier attempts here give away the limitations of the album. What we start to realize, when they try their hand at John Prine's "The Late John Garfield Blues" or Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", is that the tone of the record never changes. While it is a hushed, pleasant listen altogether, these darker songs sound too precious in their sweet voices. "The Late John Garfield Blues" lacks the biting edge Prine gave it, and sounds naïve as a result, while "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" just sounds odd, particularly because they made the perplexing choice to cut out the song's angry chorus, throwing the tone way off. "Rum and Coca Cola" sounds out of place and overly playful, while "Cocktails for Two" comes off as self-knowing in its stately delivery, which cuts against the effortless flow of the album's stronger tracks.
You may not catch these moments right off on Les Shelleys, because, as a whole, it is a breezy and enjoyable half-hour of music. But the more you live with the record, the more it sounds like Brosseau and Correa undersold themselves here. In crafting a delicate, quiet atmosphere, the two constrained themselves too much. In fact, it's almost hard to believe these are hand-picked highlights of their material, since you would think they'd assemble a set that showed off a bit more range. In the past, both have shown themselves capable of dynamic and affecting singing, but here we just get a honeyed whisper that wins you over for only so long. It's clear this kind of stripped-down folk duo delivery is well within their wheelhouse, but you might find yourself wishing they stepped outside of that a little more.