Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Shelby Lynne: Soul for Real

One of the easiest ways to get my attention musically is to sing it like you mean it. Now one might say that all artists mean what they sing. That's possible, but there are a few things to consider:

1. Often they aren't singing about anything.
2. Some may think they mean it, but don't really understand what they're saying.
3. Some are just plain faking it.
4. A number of today's artists haven't really had enough life experiences to inform their singing, so they approximate emotions, rather than feel what they're singing.

Then there are those artists whose life burns through every lyric of every song they sing, whether they wrote the song or not. To me, if you've lived life, have a bit of insight and talent, then mean it when you sing it, you've got soul. There are a lot of available arguments over 'ownership' of soul, but I've seen and heard enough to know that race doesn't provide any group ownership of that volatile yet critical ingredient.

I was first turned onto Amy Winehouse 3-4 years ago, when she released a rough debut called 'Frank'. Production so ragged that some songs sounded like demos, it was obvious from the smart, individualistic lyrics and that voice, that Amy Winehouse had a lot on her mind, even if she wasn't sure how to get it out. Now with the success of her second album, 'Back to Black', Winehouse is literally falling apart before our eyes, caught up in a drug induced freefall that I hope she'll survive. If she does, it will undoubtedly result in a searing, painful listening experience that won't be soon forgotten.

A better, healthier (but still pretty wild) example of a life lived that results in memorable music can be found with country/pop music's Shelby Lynne, on her new album 'Just A Little Lovin', a tribute to Dusty Springfield.

I saw Lynne tonight doing a free concert at Amoeba Records. She played most of the songs from the album to a packed store. Small in stature, Blond and sexy in a kind of scary way, Shelby Lynne sung even the happiest songs (I Only Want to Be With You) like she was just left at the altar. It was an interesting experience watching her perform live, because she seemed to fighting herself the entire time. She'd smile over dark lyrics and frown over happy ones. It seemed like she had to remind herself to smile, because her face seemed to settle into a suspicious, almost despondent look more often than not.

Backed by a nice 4 piece band, Lynne soared on songs like 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', 'How Can I Be Sure' and 'Breakfast in Bed'. She discouraged photos, claiming 'I ain't got my face on'. She was an utterly captivating performer, seemingly still working out what the songs meant to her while she sung them.

Shelby Lynne has been around a long time, born in Virginia, raised in Alabama, so she comes by her deep drawl naturally. Tragedy at a young age informed both her singing and world view. When she was a teenager, Lynne watched her father shoot her mother dead and then kill himself. So the shell that she wears is understandably second nature by now. It made her tough, determined and able to raise hell when the mood strikes her. She knocked around the country scene for years before winning the Best New Artist Grammy for the album 'I Am Shelby Lynne'. She's since segued over to more of a country pop sound with varying degrees of commercial success, but always musically interesting.

'Just A Little Lovin' is a collection of 9 Springfield songs and one written by Lynne that fits the album like a glove. Interestingly, Springfield tended to sing with a sultry, sexy baritone that was warm and very inviting. Lynne, by contrast, infuses the same songs with longing, hurt and disappointment. With spare musical accompaniment, Lynne elegantly and soulfully sets a table, but doesn't expect anyone to show up.

I think Rob Hoerburger of the New York Times sums up Shelby Lynne best: 'Even when she ends up in the bedroom, she takes a rougher road'.

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