Last year's acclaimed I Am Shelby Lynne was a personal and artistic breakthrough for a singer who'd nearly been crushed by a decade in the Nashville songmaking machinery. Right down to its pointed title, the record brimmed with Lynne's hunger to establish an identity of her own, one not controlled by bottom-line tastemakers in suits.
But much as it was a declaration of independence, I Am Shelby Lynne was also very much a collaborative effort between Lynne and producer Bill Bottrell. Writing together, and recording many of the tracks by themselves, they created a sound that was made for Lynne's vibrant, soulful voice.
Lynne can sing everything from country to rock to jazz with conviction and command, but her true forte is a distinctly Southern brand of pop: blue-eyed soul with a twang; vignettes of rustic life south of the Mason-Dixon line, with a cosmopolitan, L.A. sheen on top. It's the place where Tony Joe White, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell all met in the late '60s. It's the place that Dusty Springfield visited on Dusty in Memphis. With tracks like "I'm Leavin'" and "Where I'm From," Lynne made that place her own.
As productive as the musical collaboration was, Lynne and Bottrell had a falling-out during the making of the album, and she vowed never to work with him again. So, when it came time for her highly anticipated follow-up, she inked a deal with the devil -- better known as Glen Ballard, the slickwad producer who got Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews and Wilson Phillips on the radio.
The switch is crucial, because while Lynne's talent is mammoth, her artistic judgment can be precarious. Bottrell's quirky, intimate settings encouraged her to tone down the vocal showboating that's common among singers with such majestic pipes. For the first time in her career, her vocals were not merely impressive, but also overwhelmingly moving.
Not surprisingly, Ballard takes Lynne in a more generic pop-rock direction. Assembling a stellar group of studio pros (ubiquitous drummer Matt Chamberlain, keyboard player Bill Payne and slide guitarist Sonny Landreth), he helps Lynne project warmth and confidence, where Bottrell brought out her sadness and vulnerability. I Am Shelby Lynne was the aural equivalent of drinking yourself to sleep at 2 a.m. after a bitter breakup. Love, Shelby is the dawn of a new day, with a promising new love on your mind.
What is surprising, considering Ballard's history of hackdom, is how well the new approach works. "Bend" is an irresistible slice of creamy pop-soul, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's buoyant early-'70s seduction anthems. "Tarpoleon Napoleon" is a lush, jazzy ballad that draws on some of I Am'sstrengths. "Killin' Kind" (first featured on the Bridget Jones's Diary soundtrack) is a big, sweeping pop triumph lifted to the heavens by Lynne's multilayered harmonies. And even "Ain't It the Truth," the kind of predictable, horn-driven R&B stomper (Muscle Shoals without the muscle) that tough mamas like Bonnie Raitt and Joan Osborne have built careers on, gets by simply because Lynne rips into it like she invented the form.
There are a couple of duds here (the arch, Springsteen-like rocker "Jesus on a Greyhound," and an unconvincing version of John Lennon's "Mother"), but Love, Shelby suggests that Lynne is now so in tune with her gifts that she's able to elevate the hacks to her level, rather than letting them bring her down to theirs.
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