Shelby Lynne
Just A Little Lovin'

(Lost Highway)

"By the way, are you a fan of Shelby Lynne? She has an album coming out that's a tribute to Dusty Springfield - she does very stripped-down, moody arrangements of Dusty songs..."

The sentence quoted above appeared in a message from the USA that I received at the very end of 2007, expressing warm feelings about the fact that - five years later - Clouds And Clocks was still standing. Well, an album featuring "very stripped down, moody arrangements" of songs originally sung by, and so of course reminding one of, Dusty Springfield, sounded like an enticing proposition to me. And when sung by Shelby Lynne... "Hold your horses!", I said to myself, "Who the heck IS Shelby Lynne?".

Dusty Springfield I knew. As somebody who was an active radio listener in the mid-60s, I had to be familiar with her, and with the songs she sang. I clearly remember the hits: I Only Want To Be With You, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me (the English version of an Italian song I really hated), Anyone Who Had A Heart, The Look Of Love, and so on. But I'd lie if I said that it was love at first hearing, for reasons best illustrated by a photo that appears in a book about The Rolling Stones titled The Rolling Stones - An Illustrated Record, by Roy Carr. The picture (it's on page 34) shows the Winners of the New Musical Express 1965 Poll: here are Mick and Brian of The Stones, Tom Jones, Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Kathy McGowan, plus assorted others. Now, while Mick and Brian appear at their hip best, with Tom Jones looking like a dubious, home-made version of hip, both Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield look exactly like one mother's girlfriends, with impossible hairdos, fake eyelashes, and all. In a word, not hip! And this is exactly how their songs sounded to me at the time.

One needs a certain degree of maturity, I guess, in order to be able to perceive quality in a vocal performance. But though Dusty Springfield was "a credible soul singer", as a friend of mine recently told me upon hearing of this new CD of covers, that was the era when self-penned songs were regarded as being proof of authenticity; and besides, singers who had to rely on outside material were obviously at the mercy of what was available - not to mention their producers and arrangers. Plus, I didn't really like Motown, either, and preferred The Four Tops to the Temptations anyway. I was more of a Stax/Volt fan. And then there was Aretha, of course.

So it's not really surprising that I responded quite positively to Son Of A Preacher Man, a new song I heard on the radio later in the 60s. Here the framework surrounding Dusty Springfield's vocals ('cause it was her singing) had totally changed, with those massive string sections, tympani, and heavy brass being replaced by a funkier, leaner sound. Of course, one can't really discount the new production team, the songs themselves, and those brilliant vocal performances. So Dusty In Memphis is it - a certified classic. (I was not surprised, a few years ago, when I heard the album being played while we waited for Elvis Costello to take the stage, Costello having penned the liner notes to the 2002 edition of Dusty In Memphis.)

After Dusty In Memphis (definitely not a heavy seller at the time of its original release, the album has grown in stature with the passing of time), I heard just a few more Dusty Springfield singles, and then no more, till the late 80s, when the Pet Shop Boys made her name current, and hip, again. This was just before her premature death in 1999.

Here we could have a long chat about Rock and Pop and what it all means. I have to confess that for a long time I've been deeply puzzled by the survival - hey, make that thriving - of Pop, a genre that seemed to be on its last legs a long time ago. I didn't get Abba, either - and I was quite surprised, to say the least, when I read the Musician cover story where both Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer (with the former interviewing the latter, by the way) had expressed deep admiration for the Swedish quartet. Nor I'm from the "so-bad-it's-good" school. Also, I was quite puzzled by the emergence of whole currents of music that got their inspiration not from the formal qualities of good 60s music (little things like melody and harmony) but from its more choreographic elements - bongos, cheesy organs, martini cocktails, and the like.

I was quite sure I had already heard the name Shelby Lynne - but where? Almost by chance, I remembered her as the winner of a Grammy® for Best New Artist in 2001 for an album titled I Am Shelby Lynne (though, in fact, it was her sixth album!). I had covered the 2001 edition of the Grammys®, Steely Dan having won four for their back-in-the-business album, Two Against Nature. I vaguely remember reading about this singer Shelby Lynne going into a tantrum, or something. But when I heard she was a "country singer", I immediately closed my file on her (those hours spent listening to the American Country Music Countdown being among the most depressing moments of my life - talk about Pop!).

My loss. Shelby Lynne appears to have made some interesting music - and a few bizarre choices, too. Biography and info are easily available on the Net, of course. So, upon getting the aforementioned message from the USA, I went out and bought (the only available album in my town - pop. about 380.000+) Identity Crisis, her self-produced, stripped down release from 2003. Where she sings very well, plays some good guitar parts (all the guitar parts, in fact: acoustic, electric, slide...), pens some nice songs running the gamut from country to blues to gospel to... Easy Listening Song With Orchestra From The 60s?, all with a vocal style that's effective but restrained, never too florid, nor over-emoting. (I understand that the first album to get is maybe that I Am Shelby Lynne Grammy® Winner - later for that.)

(I suppose there'll be a few guys out there who'll be puzzled by the fact that I went out and bought an album just like this - rich guy, eh? Well, I've found out the secret to a good use of one's time to be to trust people whose opinion we respect. Sure, taste may vary. But random suggestions from an army of complete unknowns coupled with free downloading of whatever material we happen to hear about can only lead to our hard drives being full of files we'll never have the time to really listen to. And we don't want that, right?)

Looks like Capitol (Shelby Lynne's record company) didn't know what to make of her anymore, so this idea of recording an album of songs "inspired by Dusty Springfield" (her choice, by the way) was considered. The album had just been completed when Capitol Records was no more. Enter "boutique label" Lost Highway.

The album was produced by Phil Ramone and recorded and mixed by Al Schmitt. There are no real liner notes, but information freely available on the Web, which I hope can be trusted, indicate the album as having been recorded at the famous Studio A at Capitol, on 2" analogue tape, live with no overdubs, Lynne's vocals going through an old RCA 44 microphone.

The album opens with Just A Little Lovin' (also the first track on Dusty In Memphis). Ten tracks in all, one penned by Shelby Lynne. One bonus track. The chosen approach is quite stripped down: no strings, no orchestras, no brass. Just four musicians: Rob Mathes on acoustic piano and (what to me sounds like a real) Fender Rhodes™ electric piano; Dean Parks on electric and acoustic guitar; Kevin Axt on electric and double bass; and Gregg Field on drums, with Curt Bisquera playing on two tracks. What one immediately notices is the enormous amount of "empty" space, those long silences, the approach chosen at the production stage obviously being not that of "replicating" the conventions of the old days, but of getting to the essence of the songs, i.e., the vocals.

I have to confess that I listened to the instrumental introduction to the first song on the album, Just A Little Lovin', quite a lot of times, those 48" being really something else. A cymbal is hit, then a rimshot, a closed hi-hat, then the electric piano, the electric guitar, the electric bass. The timbral beauty, the economy of means, all reminded me of a Steely Dan album, for instance, the intro to Babylon Sisters. Here the fact of the hi-hat being hit in the half-open position implies high drama. There's also a very dramatic pause before the chorus, in the silence from 1'18" to 1'26". A slow, careful vocal by Shelby Lynne, this performance being quite different in approach from Dusty Springfield's.

Anyone Who Had A Heart has an acoustic piano, drums played with brushes, a snare that sounds really enormous, electric guitar, electric bass. The vocal narrative sits centre stage, very sad-sounding. Vocally, this is absolutely one of the album's peaks. One very fine held note at 2'47", followed by the electric guitar's short echoes, and the long decay of the piano.

As stated above, I have no good memories of You Don't Have To Say You Love Me (by the way, here they've misspelled the names of the Italian writers). This version, I have to admit, is quite good, not at all melodramatic (a real danger in cases like this).

I Only Want To Be With You is slowed down considerably, getting a nice bossa-like treatment. Nice electric piano and acoustic guitar. While the original version sounded full of youthful enthusiasm, here the attitude is appropriately more "adult". To my ears, the bridge has more than a touch of Annie Lennox - whose old group, The Tourists, let's not forget, had a big U.K. hit in 1979 with a remake of this song.

The fact that after all those years, and so many different cover versions, I could still listen to this performance of The Look Of Love speaks volumes about its quality. Still...

It's a good close to Side One. Yep, this album has also a vinyl release. Which I've never seen, but I bet this is the last track to Side One.

If Side One was very good, Side Two is even better. We have a funky opening with elastic/relaxed drums by Curt Bisquera, electric piano, electric bass, a nasty-sounding electric guitar played bottleneck, relaxed vocals. It's Breakfast In Bed.

Bottleneck again, this time on an acoustic, and Shelby Lynne also on guitar, in Willie And Laura Mae Jones, a real country-blues with a lot of verve and a funky shaker.

Randy Newman's I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore sports a graceful mix of country-blues and an interesting chord progression. Nice piano, very nice vocals.

The album gets quieter - also more intense - with the last two tracks. Pretend is a Shelby Lynne original, quite open-ended when it comes to its meaning, I think (also, I couldn't get all the lyrics). Just an acoustic guitar, double bass, and vocals. It fits perfectly.

The old Young Rascals hit How Can I Be Sure (which I've never heard in its original version) gets drastically rearranged from the dense orchestration of the Dusty Springfield version: here it's just an acoustic guitar and vocals, with no tempo change from one section to another. Some wonderful "held" notes. It's a real stunner, the perfect album closer.

Wishin' And Hopin' is the bonus track, sounding less perfect, more "funky", than the rest of the album. But it's a nice addition anyway.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Feb. 10, 2008