Olivia Chaney is being hailed as the new heroine of folk music in her native England, and one listen to her first full-length album, 2015's The Longest River, makes it clear she's everything she's cracked up to be -- a superb singer, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, a talented songwriter with a clear and distinct point of view, and an insightful interpreter of the work of other tunesmiths. At first glance, The Longest River recalls the work of Sandy Denny, mainly in the strength and clarity of Chaney's voice and her ability to sound determined and vulnerable at once. However, as much as Chaney has clearly studied Denny and the major U.K. folk acts of the '60s and '70s, she's found a voice of her own that embraces folkie tradition, the key figures in the golden age of singer/songwriters, and a lyrical worldview that's clever and compassionate but unblinkingly honest at the same time. Chaney navigates the tricky paths of love and eros ("Swimming in the Longest River"), recalls a less than successful sojourn in New York ("Imperfections"), and casts a sharp eye on mismatched relationships ("Too Social," "Holiday") as she sings in a manner that's lovely but too pointed in her observations to be simply pretty; Chaney's instrument somehow puts her characters into sharp relief rather than spraying a polish over their faults. She handles most of the instruments on The Longest River, confirming she's a sure hand on guitar, harmonium, piano, and synthesizers (though none of the keyboards here sound electronic), and Leo Abrahams (who co-produced the album with Chaney) and Jerry Boys (the veteran engineer who has worked with many of the British folk acts who informed Chaney's approach) have made The Longest River sound rich but spare at the same time, putting the focus on the artist and letting nothing else get in the way. If this album has a flaw, it's a bit too severe at moments, presenting Olivia Chaney with a folkie purity that sometimes fails to acknowledge the eclectic range of her work. But ultimately, The Longest River is a brave album in which Chaney presents her music without filters, and reveals herself as a major talent who embraces the past and present with confidence and remarkable skill. In short, she really is that good.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming