I Am Shelby Lynne, the frankly titled 2000 release that introduced the aforementioned singer to the world beyond Nashville studio executives, unfurled with fitful, hard-to-fake urgency. “Your lies won’t leave me alone,” went the first line, sung by Lynne with the wings of an orchestra fully spread around her, as if the tune, “Your Lies,” had been playing for some time before anyone could get it together enough to hit Record. “You used to say you loved me, did ya?” Lynne continued, popping right to the question and then missing the answer, a victim of her own momentum.
R&B as we know it wouldn’t exist without the true-love-is-hard-to-find trope, and few releases in recent memory found as much substance in the formula as I Am Shelby Lynne. It sounded pre-hiphop classic, but the appeal of the disc, a clean-lined retro stew of Dusty Springfield arrangements, barroom guitars, and skillfully modulated vocal testifying, was that it committed to nothing genrewise. An Alabama-bred singer with a tragic past (as a teenager, she saw her father shoot her mother and then himself) that one can’t help but conclude lends a layer of depth to her singing, Lynne used her critical breakthrough to prove that she had options. Country, soul, R&B, rockin’ blues, and mixed permutations of all of the above: Everything on the album wore like tight-fitting leather.
I Am Shelby Lynne tingled thanks in no small part to the handiwork of diamond-cutting studio pros, so it’s hard to dismiss Love, Shelby, the follow-up, for carrying the glaze of cautious planning. But as it’s stage-managed by Glen Ballard, famed producer of the enlightened fluff that gave Alanis Morissette and Aerosmith second careers, the new disc takes it as a matter of fact that its predecessor was a setup for something bigger.
Ballard is the kind of guy you hire to consult on not just what notes to hit but how to hit them. And given that Lynne can communicate that she’s the wrong woman to fuck with even when she’s crumbling in a tender ballad, the mainstream rock moves he puts her through on Love, Shelby seem like a logical course of action.
But Ballard didn’t get rich overestimating anyone’s intelligence. “Trust Me,” the kick-off track, leads with a spoken-word incantation (“Allow me to introduce you to a place where trust talks to you”) torn from Janet Jackson’s spiritual survival guide and then builds to a tizzy without giving a compelling reason for doing so. “Jesus on a Greyhound” is top-to-bottom emotional hyperbole, and the evidence that bad lyrics can happen to good people isn’t confined to the tunes that crunch: “Wall in Your Heart,” a tear-jerker, and “Killin’ Kind,” a pop confection, astound for actually employing the songwriting clichés that their titles suggest, the kind that I Am Shelby Lynne coyly flirted with but never put to tape.
There’s no good excuse for using musicians worthy of a real bandnamely slide ace Sonny Landreth and Little Feat B-3 guy Bill Paynelike dues-paying clock-punchers. But pure talent has a way of overcoming even lame material, and Lynne & Co. are nothing if not full of pluck. There’s nothing in her body of work more formulaic than “Star Broker,” a chiseled, quiet-then-not-quiet rocker coarsened by Landreth’s swamp guitar. Lynne throws her hips into it anyway, presumably figuring that if she fails to make the message (people can be shallow) poignant, she can at least draw a bead on Melissa Etheridge’s fan basethough she’ll have to do it online, because the track was cut from the final version of the album.
The rare moments on Love, Shelby are the ones when the music equals the level of Lynne’s potential. Downbeat and soulful, “Tarpoleon Napoleon” showcases the harvester of sorrow at her crooning best. The singing is restrained, the notes kept low on the scale; the lounge-jazz accompaniment simply ornaments a voice that’s a wall of sound on its own. “Mother,” a staple of Lynne’s live sets, is more complicated. It’s impossible to divorce the song from Lynne’s personal history, which inarguably gives her license to do what she wants to with John Lennon’s abandonment nightmare. So she does, singing pretty where you figure she’d go for pained; the climaxes Lennon intended for exorcising demons she milks instead for celebratory, Bic-flicking release.
It’s actually kind of brilliant, an ambiguous performance of an obvious song. Whether we can hope for similarly substantive mischief out of Lynne in the future is hard to say, particularly given that Love, Shelby contains so little of it. The Nashville career that she treats as if it were a skeleton in the closet isn’t half as bad as her silence about it led me to believe, but it’s worth pointing out that I Am Shelby Lynne, which helped Lynne win a Best New Artist Grammy, was preceded by five records of only occasionally enlightening fluff. If Love, Shelby proves to be a return to form, it’s sad to think of what will be become of the singer who introduced herself just a year ago. CP