Recording of February 2002: Love, Shelby

SHELBY LYNNE: Love, Shelby
Island ISLF 15426-2 (CD). 2001. Glen Ballard, prod.; Scott Campbell, eng.; Bob Clearmountain, mix. ADD? TT: 42:19
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

After memorable songs, genuine talent, and a clearheaded vision of what its future will be like without copyright protection, what the music business ca 2002 most lacks is characters. You know, larger-than-life pirates like the "My Way" Frank Sinatra, the "Light My Fire" Jim Morrison, with talent bright enough to let them get away with, if not exactly murder, then any other felony you can name.

Last year, when sinuous, whiskey-voiced Shelby Lynne sauntered onstage at the Grammy Awards ceremony and dissed the Academy for giving her a Best New Artist award 10 years after she'd begun recording, it was clear that we were watching a rebel. Subsequent articles in major magazines fueled that image by describing Lynne downing White Russians, stealing friends' lovers, spitting water at the camera, and backhandedly slagging the more voluptuous body of her sister, country singer Allison Moorer.

The only problem with this lovable rogue's tale was that, at that point in her career, Lynne had released only one good-to-great album: 1999's I Am Shelby Lynne. A smoky belter and impassioned soul-shouter by nature, Lynne had tried and failed in the 1980s to adapt to the manicured constrictions of mainstream country music. After five failed albums, she moved to the California desert and wrote I Am..., her first coherent statement of where she intended to go.

Her latest release, Love, Shelby, is an artistic statement big enough to back up her hellion image. Given Lynne's new devotion to being herself musically and personally, it's no surprise that this breakthrough record is a study in contradictions: a dense, well-made album full of A-list originals wrapped in she-so-horny bad-girl photos.

But, unlike Diana Krall (whose glamor-girl image I kvetched about last month), Lynne likes to be heard and seen. However you might feel about the album's look—cutoff jeans, lipstick redrums on the mirror, an open pajama top (a Britney's-big-sister come-on that Stereophile editor John Atkinson calls "a crime")—Love, Shelby delivers a double carload of goods: the material, nearly all of which Lynne wrote, and her feisty voice, which has finally found a relevant home.

The album's carefully calibrated AC/Triple AAA gloss is reminiscent of Tina Turner's 1984 milestone, Private Dancer. Like that album, Love, Shelby treads the thin edge between being affable but still cool and being too obliging for its own good. For those convinced by its charms, it's a predominantly funky collection of hit singles whose exquisite detailing, impressive sound, and not-afraid-to-open-up attitude all scream this force is ready to be reckoned with.

In fact, it's Lynne's willingness to open up that gives this populist move its backbone. In the smooth, whispery, makeout-music groove of "Bend," for example, the littlest rebel pleads, "Bend just a little bit, break just a little bit," then "Get rid of it, baby," as if she's tried.

A little later, in the strutting "Ain't It the Truth," she throttles her voice up into full Tina gear and slips in these telling lines: "I was tattered and torn up / I never really felt brought up." The torchy, meandering, k.d. lang-like "Tarpoleon Napoleon," a much-needed change of pace near the album's center, is a salute to her long-dead father. Finally, there's the closer, a version of John Lennon's inherently sad "Mother," here further intensified with Lynne's own tragic upbringing. The picture is complete: She's a rebel with a tender, damaged heart. How can anyone resist?

Supporting everything, including the moments of autobiography, is the steamroller parade of all-hook, no-filler tunes, most credited to Lynne-Ballard. "Jesus on a Greyhound" is the album's loudest, most tambourine-shakin' soul-rock raveup, and one of many spots where former Alanis Morissette collaborator Glen Ballard's knowing arrangements are breathtaking. Lynne saves the best for the last verse, turning on the jets after a pregnant second of silence.

Then there's "I Can't Wait," which opens with flute, acoustic guitar, and Lynne plaintively singing "I'm waiting on the day that somebody say they love me / I can't wait I can't wait / I'm waiting on the day that somebody say they love me / I can't wait another day. I can't wait." From there the track builds to a roaring final verse, guitars unleashed again after a moment of silence where you can almost feel the dam breaking. The acoustic guitar and voice return for a coda in this, the album's dramatic and effective centerpiece. Artfully arranged and passionately sung, "I Can't Wait" is nearly as good as pop music gets. "Killin' Kind," from the soundtrack of the forgettable Bridget Jones's Diary, is even sweeter.

Left off the album's final edit is "Star Broker," a vicious diatribe about the music business that's currently available for everyday piracy via any number of now-illegal MP3 websites—which seems appropriate, considering the subject. You knew there had to be crime here somewhere.—Robert Baird