Shelby Lynne made her mark 20 years ago with I Am Shelby Lynne, the album which earned her a Best New Artist Grammy nod. This Shelby Lynne is spare, as has been her style since her 2008 Dusty Springfield tribute, Just a Little Lovin’, recorded with the late Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone at the same Capitol Studios where the new album was mixed. Not surprisingly, this is as personal, maybe even more so, and autobiographical as any of her output.
It’s not far removed from her excellent 2011 Revelation Road either. By this time, it’s what we expect from the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist. By now we all should know Lynne’s tragic childhood, detailed in her sister, Allison Moorer’s touching book Blood. Lynne is vulnerable and fearless at the same time, always willing to speak her mind, and wear her emotions on her sleeve. What is somewhat surprising for those of us who have seen her live is her multi-instrumental approach. In a live setting she usually just sings or strums a guitar. Here we find her playing guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and even sax on the smoky, nourish “My Mind’s Riot” (“I hadn’t played that since I was a ninth-grader,” she notes). But, then again, other than the sax spot, she’s done it before too.
The genesis of the recording comes from a collaboration between Lynne and lyricist/director /screenwriter Cynthia Mort that morphed into an unreleased, full-length feature film, When We Kill the Creators, featuring live recordings made right on the set of the production, which explains their raw immediacy. Starring Lynne representing not just her alter ego, but all “endangered” musicians and artists, the movie makes a strong case for the ever-going conflict between art and commerce, and how dangerous it can be to muzzle creativity for the corporate buck. Songs like the opening, ominous “Strange Things” (with lyrics by Mort), the aching stark single note piano plucked “Revolving Broken Heart” and the climactic self-declaration “Here I Am” (another collaboration with Mort) were all recorded live during filming. “Revolving Broken Heart” and “Love is Coming” are also featured in both the film and on the album.
The Detroit-born Mort, a lifelong music fan is best known for creating and producing the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me, wrote the original screenplay for the film and the lyrics for “Here I Am” before she ever met Shelby. “It was a little intimidating collaborating with someone like Shelby,” she says, the character based on tragic singers like Judy Garland and Billie Holiday in mind. “The songs took on a life of their own outside the film. What she did creating such powerful melodies for those words was incredible. I enjoyed telling a story that way. We had a similar belief in what matters.”
Lynne does involve some other players including keyboardists Benmont Tench, Mimi Friedman, Ed Roth and Billy Mitchell and does a great job of multi-tracking her vocals as best exemplified on “I Got You.” The starkness in “Love Is Coming” transforms to muted joy as the song unfolds, almost like Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” it keeps the listener in suspense, buoyed by the repeated chorus. It’s as pure a vocal as Lynne as ever put on record. For a singer who sang with George Jones as an 18-year-old, she’s long forsaken that country persona. She just sings in a southern soul way, just as she did with The Dusty Springfield album. “Weather” is certainly deep southern soul as is “Off My Mind.”
Shelby Lynne is “pretty much just me, a guitar and a microphone,” she jokes, but there’s an incredible power in that simplicity. “As an artist, I don’t mind being naked. Everything is so fake, so manufactured these days, I want to get real. It’s pretty much the only way to communicate these days.” She states, “These are eleven songs I love and want to share with the world. They were recorded in very different circumstances at various times, but I think they go together. It’s time not to hide behind the game but put your work out as it is.”
The soulful and aching “Don’t Even Believe in Love” captures the helplessness felt when love walks in. Other highlights include the smoky torch song “Strange Things” and the sweet, soulful sound of “I Got You.” Listeners can feel her unrestrained passion throughout with “My Mind’s Riot” as one of the best examples. All pave the way for the centerpiece piano-driven potent ballad “Here I Am,” her voice soaring to heights that make it one of her best career recordings.
It’s been five years since we heard Shelby’s I Can’t Imagine. This recording is a huge reminder that Shelby Lynne is not only one of the most fiercely independent artists of our time. She’s clearly one of our best singers too.