Recording of March 2008: Just a Little Lovin'
Lost Highways B0009789-02 (CD). 2008. Phil Ramone, prod.; Al Schmitt, eng.; Steve Genewick, asst. eng. AAD? TT: 39:21
The always-entertaining saga of Shelby Lynne continues unabated, with what seems an endless supply of unexpected twists and turns. Since the late 1980s, Lynne has gone from mainstream country star (complete with hideous Reba-esque hair style) to earnest confessional songstress, then to angry rebel rocker with producer Glenn Ballard, and now solemn tribute artist. Along the way she's famously downed cocktails during interviews, played coy with her shifting sexuality, and portrayed Johnny Cash's feisty, bespectacled mama in Walk the Line. Whenever Lynne's name comes up, or her fine yet often lost-beneath-the-whispers voice is heard, the first adjective to come to mind is fearless.
Now this diminutive, Alabama-raised hellion has focused her restless creativity on a tribute album of covers of songs originally sung by the great Dusty Springfield (real name Mary O'Brien), who died in 1999 at the age of 59, after a battle with breast cancer. Springfield, a British pop singer who made her mark by turning to R&B-flavored material, is probably best known for her 1967 hit version of the Hal David–Burt Bacharach classic "The Look of Love." The highpoint of her recording career, Dusty in Memphis (1969), did not sell well when it was released, but has since come to be celebrated as a soul classic of sorts. That album contains the Top 10 single "Son of a Preacher Man," a tune that Lynne wisely avoids on this new collection. Trying to pay vocal tribute to soulful growls is a losing business.
Lynne's attraction to Springfield's catalog of recorded songs isn't hard to fathom. Dusty chose from some very distinguished songbooks, and in the late '60s—when she made her greatest records, and the era Just a Little Lovin' focuses on—her material was top-notch. There's also some obvious common ground shared by a British pop star who, against the odds, turned blue-eyed soul singer, and Lynne, who refuses to be hemmed in by the music business, social mores, or any easy artistic definitions.
The keys to this tribute's success aren't hard to divine. For starters, Lynne is constitutionally unafraid of anything, let alone any so-called "definitive version" of a song, or the legend of Springfield herself, which has grown steadily since her untimely death.
Another reason is that, rather than a slavish homage, Lynne and producer Phil Ramone have wisely made a Shelby Lynne record. The version here of Springfield's most transcendent tune, "The Look of Love," proceeds at a slightly slower tempo than the original while basically hewing to the same arrangement, but the phrasing and interpretative liberties are all Lynne's. The result is less bossa nova spice and more meandering alt-folk—the sort of thing Lynne has excelled at on albums such as I Am Shelby Lynne (1999). Ditto her stab at the other David-Bacharach classic here, "Anyone Who Had a Heart," which unfolds a step slower than the original and manages to be as much Shelby as it is a tribute to Dusty. In both cases, Lynne captures just enough of the original's aroma for the song to be familiar, while adding enough fresh fragrance to make it hers.
Related to that is the final ingredient in this album's success. The more you listen to Just a Little Lovin', the more it becomes clear that, while it's not a pairing that might have immediately sprung to mind (though each singer went through a period of high hairdos), Lynne and Springfield aren't all that far apart in tone, delivery, and emotional wallop. While Dusty could ornament a musical line and accent lyrics in indelible ways that escape Lynne, the younger rebel does a creditable job of catching just enough of Dusty's mojo to show that she understands what made the originals so powerful.
The spare arrangements, made up mostly of backing guitar, keyboards and drums, put the focus—as it was on Springfield's records—on the voice, which sounds spectacular, multi-dimensional, and present enough to touch. The "A" team of Ramone and the great engineer Al Schmitt (Elvis Presley, Steely Dan, Neil Young) no doubt made sure that no gross artistic missteps were taken, and that the final result would sound exquisite. It indubitably does.
While four of the tunes here appeared on Dusty in Memphis and three others were the title tracks of other Springfield long players, two oddities are worth mentioning. Lynne's own "Pretend," while musically not in the same league as the David-Bacharach heavyweights, is lyrically in step with most of the other love songs here. Still, I don't know if Springfield would have gone for a tune with lines like, "If you would change your devil mind / I'll even let you be more unkind / if you want to."
The final track, "How Can I Be Sure," the old Rascals classic that Springfield had a UK hit single with in 1970, serves almost as an unreleased rarity: Springfield's version remained officially unreleased in the US until it was included in The Dusty Springfield Anthology (1997), a 3-CD boxed set. The song's appearance here serves notice that Shelby Lynne is, at bottom, a serious fan who is both aware of and comfortable celebrating the gifts of a singer she obviously counts as an influence and a model.—Robert Baird