Sunday, January 27, 2008

Being Good Isn't Always Easy...


Shelby Lynne channels the ghost of Dusty Springfield and exorcises some of her own along the way.


Cover, or tribute albums by their nature are a dicey proposition. On one hand you have an act trying to introduce one of their influences to their own audience whether they requested it or not. On the other hand you have a label telling you that an album of all Beatle or Dylan covers has never failed to sell this many copies. That number incidentally includes Sebastian Cabot and his album of semi-spoken word Dylan covers. (Trust me, you don’t want to search this one out.) Then, you have the vanity type tributes where an artist is so established, or so far down the food chain, that they can cover whoever they want for any reason they deem suitable. This particular album falls somewhere in between the latter. Lynne has sold her share of albums, but in recent years has slid down to more of a critics favorite than a force to be reckoned with. With little to lose artists have a way of delivering their most essential recordings. That is certainly the case here.

Without hearing a note of this album I was certain that she had recorded one of her best albums. The songbook of Dusty Springfield is vast and jumps many genres, but at its core is blue eyed soul at its finest. When I checked the song list and discovered that she chose not to cover “Wishin’ And Hopin’,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” or “Stay Awhile” among others I knew she was a true fan that wanted to share what Dusty has meant to her instead of what an album of Dusty’s songs could do for her. As a result Lynne has done some of her best work yet.

At this point we should just drop the phrase cover and think tribute instead, because that is really what this is. There is no doubt that Dusty has had a profound effect on Lynne’s music and this album of soulful, almost gothic, interpretations is a rare album in these cookie cutter times for music. Her take on the iconic “The Look Of Love” is just one of the clues that lets you know that soul is not so much a sound as it is truly a feeling that is better shared. The only thing that worried me was seeing the Phil Ramone was the producer. I have no gripe with him at all and his work with Simon & Garfunkel, and even Billy Joel if laudable. I was more worried that the project would be weighted down with too much over production. My worries were unfounded, if anything the album is understated in the best of ways. Looks like a labor of love on everyone’s part here.

These songs of Dusty’s span about seven or eight years and the originals were presented as pop, soul, rock, ballads and even Phil Spector like anthems. What Lynne has done here is take them all to a laid back, stripped down soulful place that makes them all seem as though they were from the same session. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and this album will soon find a place with your late night, or Sunday morning listening pile.

When she does take Dusty head on with covers of “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart” she again finds that sweet spot that is best reserved for impossible to convey moments. Listening to this cut I was reminded of Patricia Neal’s wordless longing while washing the dishes in the movie “Hud.”

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a flaw, that while unforgivable, doesn’t sink the album. She has chosen to cover Dusty, covering Tony Joe White’s “Willie And Laura Mae Jones.” When I first saw this in the track listing my head began to spin at the possibilities. The delivered version here is a disappointment on several levels. For those not familiar with the song or the several other covers it may float by on the strength of its ambiance in regard to this project. However, for those of us who first heard this song in the late sixties and were shaken by the racial and political implications this is a major letdown. She decides to drop a verse in the middle and then inexplicably allows the song to fade part way during the final verse which is essentially the point of the entire song. I keep hoping the label will contact me and say there was an error during the mastering phase of the album. This performance of this song just makes no sense.

All of that said, one of the many things that makes this album so compelling is that cover albums, once a rare addition to an artists catalog, have become a burden. Thanks to the industry exploiting anything that was once unique and making it mainstream, even filler they (cover albums) now almost have a squirm factor attached to them. (You can also include “unplugged” and “duet” albums in this category at this point) Lynne could have coasted here and still come away with a fine recording, but instead of walking a familiar path, she instead steps out for stroll on the ledge. She has nothing to fear though, she can take that walk with all the confidence of someone with wings.