As well as being a solo artist in her own right, Ashley Shadow is a former member of The Organ, as well as collaborating with the likes of The Cave Singers, Pink Mountaintops and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Her debut solo album was recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Wells, best known as a member of Black Mountain.
The majority of the tracks on Ashley Shadow’s debut album seem to build from the folkish strum of an acoustic guitar and her exquisite vocal; what elevates them though is the clever use of other musical elements around them and the dynamic recording that gives the music a wonderful sense of depth. Whilst Ashley and her guitar are generally presented to the listener firmly in the foreground, around them buzz an array of organs, reverb-heavy distorted guitars and subtle percussive detailing, all of which serve to add depth to her subtly beautiful compositions.
Ashley is from Vancouver the most populous city in the Canadian province of British Colombia. Whilst Vancouver is only the eight biggest municipality in Canada, it is the country’s most densely populated city, and the fourth most densely populated area in North America. Widely regarded as being one of the world’s best cities for liveability and quality of life, Vancouver is a major port, a center for logging and mining and in recent years a hub for software development, biotechnology and the aerospace industry. Due in part to the cities origins as a nearly entirely male seaport it has a rich history of burlesque, which may also have helped in the growth of the cities impressive music scene. Famous musical residents have included pop stars from Bryan Adams to Carly Rae-Jepsen, as well as alternative acts such as The New Pornographers, Black Mountain and Japandroids.
Ashley first came to the world’s attention back in 2001 as the bass player in Canadian post-punk’s The Organ. Ashley spent five years with the band before leaving to explore other musical projects.Those explorations took in a large number of guest appearances with other well-known artists, but some fifteen years after her first musical endeavour this month has seen the release of her self-titled debut solo album via Felte Records.
Although it’s not the album’s opening track, it’s the excellent Tonight that brings the album to life and makes you realise as a listener that Ashley Shadow is a serious musical talent. The acoustic guitar sings out with an easy rhythmic strum, joined only by the subtle tick of percussion, but as the vocal enters, and Ashley coos, “I don’t feel it ’cause I want to”, the drums enter a huge, heavy hit, thick and reverberating, electric guitars crash in, distant, as if they’re being played very loud, and very far away. The background hum manages to mold the contrasting worlds of The Crystals and The Jesus & Mary Chain. It’s spectacularly good and quietly introduces a musical palette that, although subtly varied from track to track, defines this albums sound.
Way It Should incorporates a twanging slide guitar, to an Iron & Wine-like guitar strum, while Another Day has shades of Torres in the punchy drums and bouncing bass, but also introduces some wonderful keyboards that hint at a healthy appreciation for the Pet Shop Boys. Elsewhere the excellent In Shadows starts off so slow moving you wonder if it’s at the wrong speed, but quietly builds to an intense crescendo despite never really getting that loud. Ashley’s a master at sounding intense without resorting to shouting or the clichéd heaviness of crashing drums and distorted guitars.
Lyrically, Ashley seems to deal largely in other people’s problems, whilst many songwriters go down the route of self-analysis and their personal dilemmas, Ashley seems to be busy sorting out other people’s and trying to put herself in their shoes. On, Laws, we find her pleading to be given an audience, as she observes, “your misery needs company” and ultimately fails to get her head around someone’s inner working, noting, “I don’t know what your plan is about.” On, Way It Should she seems to incite an unnamed someone to take responsibility for their life, suggesting, “you could spend your life pretending and never looking back to what went wrong.” Whilst, Tonight seems to be a note of support and admiration for a personality she admires, “you’re tougher than I ever could be, you fight your way out of everything” before latterly suggesting they, “lay your guard down tonight, and take some time for your life.” It’s a record that seeks to find some sort of strength in the world we find ourselves in, one that appreciates life isn’t always easy, but never sounds like it’s wallowing in that world, it is a record that searches for a solution.
There’s nothing particularly boundary pushing or unique about the music Ashley Shadow makes, none the less it sounds wonderful, and whilst she might tread a little too close to some of her influences, fans of Sharon Van Etten, Mazzy Star or Meg Baird will find much to admire.
Ashley Shadow’s debut solo album is out now via Felte Records. Ashley will be supporting Black Mountain on their upcoming US dates.