I don’t know how many concerts I’ve been to. 50? 70? Something like that, probably (proper concerts, I mean: not, like, seeing friends play in a garage or happening by some choir in the mall on the day before some holiday). One of the best moments ever: at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, probably 2000 (maybe 1999, though I think it was 2000), after maybe an hour of a mostly on set (mostly on meaning: there were a few flubs, sure, but by and large—despite lots of, if I remember, JDaniels or JBeam—the set was incendiary), Shelby Lynne tore J. Lennon’s “Mother” to absolute fucking shreds. I shit you not: shreds. You know the song? How Lennon gets all high and it sorta works (and works better if you’re really into Lennon and can forgive his sorta-flat note because the moment’s clearly more about emotional emphasis than musical exactitude)? Yeah: Lynne fucking killed it. She hit the highest notes, wailed like a fucking demon. Tore shit up. It was spooky how awesomely she owned that song.
I was seeing S. Lynne in 2000 because a girlfriend had told me about this CD of hers called I Am Shelby Lynne and from second #1 of that disc I was sold. You’ve heard this disc (nod along even if you haven’t, and then go buy it)? Hilariously great. As “country” as L. Lovett’s masterful I Love Everybody or Ensenada, S. Lynne won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 2001. Remember? Remember?
No? Yeah, you’re not alone: Lynne’s the queen of being overlooked. Somehow. Over and over again, it’d seem.
If you read the NYTimes, you maybe read the profile in the magazine from the 13 January issue, or at least maybe saw it. And it’s staggering, right? Go look at the article: the woman’s gorgeous, she’s got a great voice, she’s got a Grammy…she should be, without argument, one of the top female singers working.
(that she’s not, I suppose, is obvious from much of the above).
So what’s the dice on this Shelby Lynne? What’s the deal? Maybe more specifically: what the fuck is the matter with all us listeners who aren’t buying her stuff more fervently and demanding that all our loved ones do the same? Is the “country” market so dominated, at the moment, with fake twangy pop musicians that someone like Lynne—someone with pipes and a growl and presence and attitude—is just f’ed? And, if that’s true: do we all jump ship? Admit that “country” is no longer a decent enough net (because it’s left out, variously, Richard Buckner or Gillian Welch or name your favorite head-smackingly stupid omission) and just start buying stuff regardless of genre or category?
Thankfully, all those questions are beyond answering. And none of them really matter, anyway. What matters is that Shelby Lynne’s got a new disc out called Just a Little Lovin’ and it’s a CD of ten tracks, nine of which are covers of songs most commonly associated with Dusty Springfield. It’s been released, of course, by Lost Highway, the label which, for who knows the reason, seems to be doing almost missionary-type work re: putting out good albums by artists who deserve it (they put out the last Golden Smog disc, the last Lucinda Williams disc, the last Willie Nelson)(not that any of those three (or the rest of Lost Highway’s catalog) need, like, pity or charity, but the label seems real bent on establishing itself as a “house” in the old style of labels, like the Stax of old).
If there’s a shitty part to Shelby Lynne, it’s a very small part and it’s very much more of a compliment than criticism: the shitty part is that Shelby Lynne sounds like she could make just about anything sound good. If the woman put out a whole CD of jingles from 1970-1980 television commercials for soap, I’m sure I’d be convinced, after her crooning, to buy Palmolive—or I’d at least find myself singing bits of the commercial while I kept up using my regular no-name organic stuff.
It’s that sort of tough fact that informs best and most this new CD. Just a Little Lovin’ is a deft, soft CD, laid back in all sorts of sexy, Sunday-afternoon ways. The CD sounds, in fact, like the soundtrack to the best possible Sunday afternoon—spent with or just after time in the arms of a lover, spent on a comfortable sofa, maybe with some tea nearbye. (The funniest fact in the press materials that were sent with the disc was the declaration that the CD was something far afield from the world of Pro Tools and digital tweaking and etc, and that statement almost doesn’t need to be made: the whole disc sounds, in the best possible way, organic and airy and created, not put-together.)
Opening with the title track, Lynne and the great musicians backing her stroll casually into a song that D. Springfield didn’t, in fact, keep very casual. Go back and listen to how Dusty in Memphis opens: strings. And when Dusty gets to those choruses? The whole color of the song changes—from the slink of strings and the soft of the verses to something bordering on drama—soaring strings, Dusty’s own soaring voice, a shift of dynamic and emphasis.
Lynne and Co, on the other hand, keep the song like a quiet, tame thing—keep the song entirely on something like a loungy frequency. Do you remember the first time you heard the Indigo Girls’ cover of “Romeo and Juliet” by the Dire Straits? How she (it was just one of the I. Girls, and I can’t remember which one) turned what had been this almost flat (in a good way, but still) song—a song with few moments of standout drama or tonal shifting—into this gutsy, pleading, trembling thing? (For what it’s worth, I like both bands’ version of the song just about equally).
It’s sort of that in reverse: Lynne takes some of Dusty’s stuff and tugs the peaks and valleys from it, makes it—not sanitized, not safe, but just texturally very, very different. I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it’s the aural equivalent of painting with several different shades of green or brown instead of using an entire spectrum of color.
Which is a sort of way of saying it’s an intimate record, which it undoubtedly is. In the same way that it’s hard not to read an author’s life into the novel she or he writes, it’d be hard not to read into this lush, hushed album the facts behind Lynne’s history and background. This is a woman who has, for years, been recording great music and getting nothing like the sort of attention she deserves for it. Heard with that in mind, it’s hard not to hear the album as something of a beckoning, a whispered come here to the listener, to potential fans, to whomever. I fully submit that that’s not a fair way to hear it—and the album stands on its own without any pretend pathos behind the songs being sung—but still.
So what happens when a musician with remarkable talent and skill uses a different set of talent and skill on a new album? That’s what seems at stake here, really. On her absolute best album I Am Shelby Lynne, there’s dynamic galore—brash, wailing tracks segue into moody, imploring songs and vice versa, and the album’s all the stronger for the shifting.
And, of course, it’s unfair to judge Just a Little Lovin’ according to the same rubric: wanting loudness from a quiet disc is like getting upset that a banana doesn’t taste like a hamburger. Given that, it’s a beautiful, intimate, brooding disc, and though I’m frustrated that Shelby Lynne’s not getting a million dollars a year for using her outrageously great vocals in wild, dynamic ways, it’d be hard to argue that this disc isn’t one of the prettiest, best made collections that’s likely to appear in 2008—in any three-year span, really.
That’s it, maybe: it’s so fucking pretty. For all the atmospheric mastery of live-to-tape studio work, it’s a CD that, in the best ways, will appeal to people who like Norah Jones (which, in fairness: I am totally one of those people)(if you think Norah Jones is bad just because she’s popular, scour the net for the tracks she’s done live with M. Ward for evidence of your lunacy). Does it take a while to get used to such prettiness? Maybe. It will take some people some extra time. Is the time worth spending? Oh good god yes.