Before working his way through New York City, folk musician Christopher Paul Stelling made his first certifiable accomplishments in Orlando. After relocating here from his native Daytona Beach, he first caught the avid attention of local label Sleepy Bird Orphanage, which released some of his earliest recordings. Then he moved to New York and spent the past several years honing his perspective. Now that his debut full-length album is finally seeing daylight, it turns out the cultivation time was well spent.
Because the genre has been tread to virtual meaninglessness, it’s essential to point out that Stelling is much more than the average folkie. Unlike so many who claim that guise, he’s the genuine article with a spirit and sound that have deep, traditional roots. He’s indie, but you can hear in him an old folk soul that predates the ’60s hippie stuff.
Live, Stelling typically performs solo, acoustic and accompanied primarily by his own foot stomps. But because of the extraordinary mileage of his voice and advanced finger-picked guitar work, this record is intimately lush even without much additional embellishment (mainly backup vocals by Julia Christgau and violin accompaniment by ascendant Bonnie “Prince” Billy collaborator Cheyenne Marie Mize).
Moreover, the mood topography here is varied, ranging from pastoral John Fahey-like leas to raw crags where Stelling wrings out his soul like old, coarse clothes. On the halcyon end, standouts are the Cave Singers-esque “Flawless Executioner,” the shimmering pond of “Mourning Train to Memphis” and especially the lovely “Solar Flares,” a mountain ballad that’s practically tangible with wood smoke and glistening morning dew. More haunted highlights include the smoldering soul of “Never Been There” and the hexed Southern gothic howl of “Ghost Ship.” Also beautiful is the crestfallen sea shanty “The Ocean Stole My Love Away.”
It’s possible no recording can fully capture the spell of Stelling’s live expression – a thing of bottomless, full-body feeling – but this debut album renders the range and detail of his accomplished style with graceful aplomb.
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