“Swift Arrows” – Shelby Earl
With its slow, triplet-induced swing, “Swift Arrows” nods in the direction of the ’50s while staking out idiosyncratic 21st-century territory all its own. I don’t think I overstate my case to say that Shelby Earl has one of the best voices I’ve heard in my 10 years on call here at Fingertips—soft and hard and sweet and strong all at the same time, it’s a voice that does nothing obvious to call undue attention to itself, which makes her able, delicious yet elusive tone all the more effective, to my ears.
And she’s not just a voice; she’s an impressive songwriter too. I hear the song’s greatness pivoting on the moment when the titular phrase enters. The fuller phrase Earl sings is “one poison-tipped swift arrow,” but listen both to how the song is written and to how she negotiates the phrasing: the words “one poison-tipped” swoop dramatically, in relative alignment with the beat, while “swift arrow” veers irregularly, almost a melodic afterthought. And yet these last words grab the ear in a most affecting way, which I think has to do with how, as a singer, Earl manages on “arrow” to accentuate the first syllable (as one would merely speaking it) while extending the second both out and upward. This strikes me as tricky, and while I’m not sure she gave this any particular thought, it is the moment I return to over and over again. Beyond the singing and the songwriting, I’m likewise enjoying Damien Jurado’s production, with its curious union of the minimal and the baroque. There are strings, woodwinds, and deep dramatic bells and drums in the mix, and sometimes the sound rises to challenge—perhaps even to bait—Earl’s voice, but more often than not we’re just hearing those basic piano triplets in the background. The song even reduces to silence at one point (2:01). The end result is something both familiar and a little odd. Works for me, to say the least.
“Swift Arrows” is the title track to Shelby Earl’s second album, and I can confidently report that she is the real thing, a bona fide star, at least here in the Fingertips firmament. She was previously featured in October 2011 for the song “Evergreen,” and also stopped by for an notably thoughtful Q&A the next month.
The MP3 is no longer available but you can listen to the track here, via SoundCloud: