It's easy to pooh-pooh white blues singers. The strained sounds of earnest dilettantes with their paler shades of blue used to be one of music's more annoying clichés. And though you still can find artificial Negroes wailing about things like levees and deltas at the occasional suburban sports bar, that particular crossover trend is, thankfully, taking a nap, and has been for some time.
That said, it's hard to resist the blue-eyed soul from Shelby Lynne, a petite, trailer-park diva with a commanding voice and a dirty-blond sound. Lynne is a pop phenomenon in waiting. Her bio guarantees it. First, there are her looks, which she seems more than comfortable with considering her half-naked Venus-in-furs pose on the CD's cover. Then there's Lynne's tragic Alabama upbringing, most notably the loss of both parents in a murder-suicide. Such is the stuff of tortured rock legend, and already European critics are being wowed as much by Lynne's story angles -- and other curves -- as by the sounds on her CD.
But the real news here is Lynne's music. I Am opens with Lynne riding atop grandiose orchestration that elevates in sound and emotion on every verse. The strings that fuel the song reappear throughout the CD, along with a variety of horns, woodwinds and pedal-steel guitars, all of it merging with soulful R&B beats for a steady, front-porch sound.
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As for Lynne's considerable voice, a number of influences and inclinations come to mind, with Dusty Springfield the most obvious; indeed, on the orchestrated numbers the disc sounds as if it should have been called Shelby in Memphis.
Also of note, Lynne's slow Southern drawl, reminiscent of the more contemporary -- and regional -- Lucinda Williams. Lynne's learned well from Aretha Franklin, too, sharing a tendency to lift the pitch in her voice at the end of verses or sentences, making for sassy semicolons that linger. There's also more than a little Sheryl Crow in Lynne's saunter and spunk.
Comparisons to Crow are as easy to spot as to understand; Lynne's CD was produced and almost entirely co-written by Bill Bottrell, a member of Ms. Crow's initial songwriting crew, the Tuesday Night Music Club, and the producer/Svengali on Crow's breakthrough debut. Bottrell has his thumbprint all over I Am Shelby Lynne, but the CD still feels like it really is Shelby Lynne, from the laid-back grooves of the wonderful "I Thought It Would Be Easier" to the life-is-bad lyrics of, well, "Life Is Bad," along with "Your Lies" and "Leavin'." Through it all, Lynne delivers the goods in a smooth, understated style. Unlike other pop/R&B vocalists, Lynne doesn't have to scream to be heard. Sure, she can jump octaves with a single scream, but she's patient with her talent and her songs are more compelling for it.
Shelby Lynne tried her luck in Nashville 10 years ago, with dismal results. She found out the hard way that image trumps talent in Music City. With this new album, Lynne is back home, amid the deep Southern sounds that transcend corporate cowboy hats and line-dancing belt buckles. To paraphrase a Frank Zappa muse: Can blue girls sing the whites? Shelby Lynne can.