When is an effect an effect too far?
Ashley Shadow, aka Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Ashley Webber, releases her second album, the follow-up to her 2016 eponymous debut. The big news around this album is that the first single drawn from it, ‘Don’t Slow Me Down’ is a duet with roots royalty, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Ashley Shadow previously contributed backing vocals to Billy’s 2018 “Lie Down In Light” album. There’s obviously a connection there and their voices blend well on what is, probably, the stand-out cut from the album and a very good track indeed. The rest of the album is intriguing and irritating almost in equal amounts. Intriguing because there are some very good songs here and Shadow is clearly an artist with a strong sense of her own identity and a good line in dark, introspective songs. Irritating because the whole album is drenched in effects, from the reverb on the voice to the gated percussion, everything sounds squeezed and manipulated in a way that makes it hard to judge where musicianship ends and distortion takes over. It all sounds like you’re listening to it in a tunnel at best and, in the worst cases, like ‘Unspoken’, sounds like it’s coming at you over a bad telephone connection.
It’s understandable that the artist is trying to establish a signature sound and, given the introspective and melancholy nature of her writing, it’s easy to see why she feels that these types of manipulation in the recording serve the songs well, and in some cases they do, but to have the whole album covered in effects in this way makes everything sound overproduced. Interestingly, on the Billy collaboration, his voice seems to be the only thing on the track that hasn’t been manipulated in some way. As a result his voice, always a great instrument, rings out clear and bell-like and gives the track real focus. It would’ve been nice to hear more of that on other tracks on this album.
The album does start well enough with opener ‘Gone Too Long’, one of the tracks that does benefit from this particular approach to the production, though it does have a slightly monotonous feel to it that suggests more light and shade might help. The single is well-positioned as the third track on the album and stands out well. It’s followed by one of the other stand out tracks on the album ‘Grey’, which perhaps comes the closest to letting us hear Ashley Shadow’s natural voice, which has a nice, smokey quality that really doesn’t need the drenching reverb that is placed on it on other tracks. Here the heavy effects are saved for a bridge section and this gives the song a nice sense of dynamics that keeps it interesting. ‘Catlin’ is another strong track that shows a good writer at work and is clearly about someone dealing with their own demons – “Turn off the light, close yourself in”….”Did you give up, a long time ago” – it’s moody, atmospheric and evocative; something that the album constantly hints at but only occasionally achieves, as it certainly does on this track.
Closing track ‘Bury’ is another track that shows the artist’s quality as a writer; it’s musically one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, though that’s not really reflected in the lyrics. It does show diversity in the way this artist uses melodies and tempo and closes out the album well. This is an album that has a lot to recommend it. The writing is clearly good and there are some nice performances here but, for this reviewer, the production got in the way more often than it helped the song and that made the album a hard listen at times. It would be nice to hear Ashley Shadow in concert and see what she makes of these songs in a live setting. Stripped of their effects and detailed production techniques would they stand up as songs. Most of them certainly would and it’s likely that one or two may be significantly improved by the stripped-back approach.
The duet with Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a delight and should bring Ashley Shadow the attention she deserves but it’s fair to say that “Only The End” is an album probably aimed at a different audience to the one it has encountered on this review. If you like your roots-based music with a strong techno input, then this may well appeal but, as an album, the heavy use of technology robs it of variety and, despite the quality of the songs, it becomes hard to distinguish the different tracks. Less would be more when it comes to some of these arrangements.