[31 January 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Bloated. Blatantly commercial. Over-produced. Pandering. Smug. Half-hearted.
These are adjectives that are commonly reserved by critics, kept under wraps except for very rare, deserving occasions. One such occasion is the “collaboration” album, in which an aging artist (Carlos Santana, Reba McEntire, Aretha Franklin, etc.) suddenly records a dozen or so tracks with some hot young talent (Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson … the guy from Nickelback? Really?) and—lo and behold—the suddenly have a commercial hit on their hands. The artist in question usually has his or her sound homogenized into a nice, pretty aural package that is custom-made for Top 40 radio, no doubt with some accompanying video clip that will find its home on VH1 in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a formula that—especially nowadays—we have all seen far too often.
The same can be said for the “songbook” album, in which an artist (usually Rod Stewart) attempts to sing the Great American Standards with a true-to-life Paul Anka-imitation band and a slick professional sheen of David Foster production. Things get more interesting, however, when an artist focuses on one particular idol figure (like Bette Midler’s Grammy-nominated 2005 effort, …Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook), soon giving us a direct telegram from artist to influence, and it’s absolutely fascinating to see how one affects the other. Yet when such a thing is attempted by a defiantly independent artist who is willing to step outside of the predictable (such as Mark Kozelek’s album of nothing but acoustic AC/DC covers), the results are almost always incredible, forcing us to not only analyze the intent of the artist covering the song, but also the intent of the original songs themselves.
In steps Shelby Lynne.
In the promotional material that comes with Just a Little Lovin’—her tenth studio album—she tells a story of when she went out to the bar with a record exec at her label who told her, quite simply, that they had no idea what to do with her last album. Armchair pop historians know quite well that few know what to make of Lynne; after all, she started off as a run-of-the-mill mainstream country pop-tart who just so happened to write some of her own songs. When she revamped her image, sound, and style with 2000’s unforgettable I Am Shelby Lynne, she not only found a new audience, but also a Best New Artist Grammy to go with it (the irony, of course, being that she won the award for her sixth album). Yet she immediately squandered her kudos with the Glen Ballard-produced pop album Love, Shelby, arriving only a year later. Critics were confused, her new fans suddenly gave up, and Lynne was back to square one.
Two years later, she re-invented herself yet again with her entirely self-produced, self-penned zeitgeist Identity Crisis. Two years later, she topped that with the even-better Suit Yourself. Even though she would eventually have to buy a warehouse to store all of her positive press clippings, Lynne remained too alt-country to ever garner any sort of attention from CMT, and—conversely—too commercial to ever be truly embraced by the people who worship at the altar of the No Depression movement. None of this ever seemed to bother Miss Lynne, because she knew that Suit Yourself was one of the best albums of the past decade, the kind of album that is best discovered on your own volition, all while thinking you just stumbled across one of pop music’s greatest secrets. Yet, with all of that storied past now behind her, what could Shelby Lynne possibly do now?
A covers album, obviously. Just a Little Lovin’ is a simple, 10-track disc of nothing but Dusty Springfield covers (with one original thrown in for good measure), and given Springfield’s own career trajectory (Wall of Sound pop diva who retreated to Memphis after Woodstock choked the nation, quietly releasing brilliant albums in relative obscurity until being briefly resurrected by the Pet Shop Boys in the late ‘80s), Lynne couldn’t have picked a better subject. Yet as easy as it would be for Lynne to pander to the NPR crowd by jumping the gun and doing her own watered-down versions of sure-fire pop hits like “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “Son of a Preacher Man”, she instead does the smart thing: she reconstructs Springfield’s songs to fit her own agenda. It may sound like blasphemy, but from the delicate opening cymbal tap of the title track onward, it’s obvious that Lynne remembers what made Dusty Springfield so great in the first place: she poured her soul into each song, singing like she meant it until there weren’t any words left to belt. To attempt anything less? That would be blasphemy.
Lynne never had an astounding voice, but neither did Sinatra. The reason why we fall for Ol’ Blue Eyes’ charm time and time again is because of his pronunciation: he made you feel the power of each and every syllable. Lynne does the same, and here she places her voice front and center in a way that she’s only hinted at before. In fact, the band accompaniment that surrounds her is so sparse that it almost borders on skeletal. Remember that immortal soft-trumpet solo that follows Springfield’s after the second verse of “The Look of Love”? It’s now replaced by piano, which—along with a softly strummed acoustic and bare-essentials trap kit—is all that’s used to propel the song forward. Expertly produced by Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Barry Manilow, the last recordings of Sinatra himself), Just a Little Lovin’ is an album that brings all the attention back to the words that made the songs so cathartic to begin with, and given that Springfield’s canon is filled with prime-era selections from the likes of Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, and the incomparable Tony Joe White (who, it should be noted, played on Suit Yourself), Shelby’s got some choice words to pick from. Lynne’s no fool, and she surrounds herself with the best of Dusty’s best: singing nothing but love and breakup songs like they’re going out of style (which, it could be argued, they are).
Of course, Springfield’s legacy will forever hang on Dusty in Memphis, an LP that, aside from being great Tarantino soundtrack fodder, serves as one of the greatest blends of pop and soul to ever have been recorded. Four songs from that masterpiece are culled for Just a Little Lovin’: the title track, the lighthearted “Breakfast in Bed”, “Willie & Laura Mae Jones” (which incidentally did not actually appear on the original Memphis, but is frequently issued as a bonus track on the various CD releases, making it half-count), and—best of all—“I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore”, one of Randy Newman’s greatest ballads. Though it rides a somewhat lifting melody, the lyrics depict a relationship nearly torn about by gossip, and the condition of the character’s residence ultimately is reflective of the state of the relationship at the same time:
In my neighborhood, we don’t live so good
The rooms are small in a building made of wood
I hear the neighbors talk about you and me
Oh I guess I heard it all
‘Cos the talk is loud
And the walls are much too thin
Lynne nails it out of the park, never lamenting like a woman scorned, but instead delivering it all with a remarkably detached feeling, as if she knew the bad news was coming all along. She wails a tiny bit after the three-minute mark, as if acting out in rage before remembering that this isn’t a time to show that she’s weak. Hearing Lynne sing is much akin to watching Helen Mirren act: it’s easy to gloss over the performance because there are no hugely melodramatic moments (see: no Aguilera-styled octave chasing), but the subtleties are what make it worthwhile, hinting at a deeper emotion. Lynne restrains herself even further on “The Look of Love”, singing as if nearly whispering, much like a secret kept to no one else but her, all while reassuring herself that her object of desire is feeling the same way. Her performance is so good that you almost forget that Springfield’s original premiered in the groan-inducing 1967 spy parody Casino Royale to begin with (though, thankfully for Springfield, she did score an Oscar nomination for the track).
From the tense, understated drama of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” to the beautiful acoustic-and-voice pledge of romantic loyalty that is “How Can I Be Sure”, Shelby Lynne has crafted an album whose roots, history, and passions dig deeper than it would care to admit. It’s unfortunate that this album will—invariably—be compared to the soft-spoken output of another Grammy-snatching balladeer: Norah Jones; but where Jones vocally sleepwalks through her tracks, Lynne truly invests herself in each and every line. Casual Starbucks customers who hear Just a Little Lovin’ playing overhead could easily pass it off as a down-tempo set of jazz covers. Yet, Springfield was never a jazz artist, just as Lynne should never be considered just a country singer. They’re both women whose voices speak louder than listening stations, whose passions ring louder than radio chart rankings. Just a Little Lovin’ is not for everyone, but for those who know Lynne’s true intent (providing a contemporary interpretation of Springfield’s most powerful tracks without sacrificing an ounce of the fiesty spirit that lived in the originals), they’re in for the treat of a lifetime. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Lynne has crafted a disc that—while not exactly transcendent—still manages to go to emotional places that remain unattainable to your run-of-the-mill pop vocalists.
Needless to say, Springfield would be proud, Shelby Lynne; she would be mighty proud.