With songs that transcend trends and musical boundaries, Shelby Earl’s Burn the Boats is a fine example of a singer-songwriter who has honed her craft to a fine point and whose songs are both touching and inspiring.
Earl eschews poses and posturing, and instead gets down to delivering a dynamic series of songs, beginning with “22 (You’ve Got Me Undone)” and closing with “Burn The Boats Pt. 1” some 30 minutes later. Joined by a cast that includes the mighty John Roderick (Long Winters) in the production chair (and playing a fair number of instruments throughout) plus his bandmate Eric Corson (in the engineering department), the Seattle songwriter frequently calls to mind the weather-beaten souls of the Great Plains and the world gnarled hearts of the Southwest. The music is that spare, that haunting.
“22 (You’ve Got Me Undone)” may be the closest Earl comes to sounding like Neko Case, an artist she’s endured past comparisons to, but there’s a greater sense of classic country coursing through Earl’s veins that has more in common with Rodney Crowell’s songwriting and Roseanne Cash’s singing than might first seem evident. From there the record and the songs become increasingly spare; “Legend of Persephone” could never be accused of being overstuffed with production and instrumentation, and “Everyone Belongs to Someone” was clearly written and performed by an artist who has set foot in a honky-tonk.
By “Distant Rooms”, Earl’s voice and the instruments supporting it become ghostlike, faint spectres that ease from end to end. In those moments, she has more in common with classic artists such as Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris than she does the majority of her peers. It’s refreshing to hear a voice steeped in that earlier tradition and an artist unafraid to let her songs and singing remain so unadorned. “Pacific Love” is equally understated, with Earl’s voice at the fore, then gentle guitar touches from both she and Roderick just below that. A string quartet is the finishing touch on the track but it never calls attention to itself the way that such touches tend to in the world of overblown pop.
“At The Start”, a duet with Roderick may be the album’s crowning moment – his voice never having sounded as haunting as it does here, hers blending amazingly well with his. Although the lyrics are as fine as anything else here, they almost don’t matter – these two sound so good together they could be singing about cat toys and shampoo and still making it sound like pressing matters of the heart.
Burn The Boats may not find Earl the widest possible audience but it may very well find her a more refined and appreciative one. This is a record that reveals itself slowly, requiring deep and thoughtful listening on par with the deep and thoughtful performances that brought these 11 songs to life. Here’s to hearing many more records from Shelby Earl, an artist who doubtless has many more amazing songs and performances to share with us, just as we have deep and rapt appreciation to share with her.