Sappy but thrilling, Shelby Lynne's "Killin' Kind" was nearly lush enough to wipe the bad memory of Bridget Jones's Diary right off your brainpan when the film's closing credits finally rolled. The song is an all-hook-and-no-filler labor of lust, recalling the sophisticated make-out music that Elvis Costello seemed for a while to be zeroing in on around the time of Imperial Bedroomand that Aimee Mann keeps shooting blanks at. It's an effortlessly complex pop tune, seriously sensual, and, best of all, built to sound great on the radio.
All of which also applies to Lynne herself, the hot and bothered Southern charmer whose biography resembles the plot of a Faulkner novel, complete with a tragically homicidal dad, a teenage marriage quickly abandoned, and a series of record labels that couldn't really give a shit. OK, that last item isn't especially Faulknerian. But it is an important part of the Shelby story: Last year's Grammy-certified breakthrough, I Am Shelby Lynne, made the singer a "best new artist" after five barely noticed albums and nine years of Nashville tough-luck-sweetie. Now, with God as her witness, she'll never go hungry from industry neglect again!
No, really. Just check the cover of Lynne's latest, Love, Shelby, for all the salacious, unit-shifting details. There she is, tightly undone in tank top and blue-jean cutoffs, conveniently positioned in front of a mirror and letting it all, or at least some of it, hang out. The LP's title is written in lipstick, as if the disc were a mash note to you, CD buyer, her one and only true love. And PS: Don't you just hate that bitch Sheryl Crow?
Judging from the album art (which only gets prettier on the inside), Shelby could be Britney's horny older sister, an association reinforced by the fact that release dates for each diva's new disc are just a week apart. Coincidence? I think not. On the strength of the decidedly rawkist "Life Is Bad" and a shared producer (Bill Bottrell), I Am Shelby Lynne garnered the singer a few misguided comparisons to Crow, whose allegiance to Stonesian swagger makes Lynne's Dustyisms seem positively subtle. The controlled burn of hype about Lynne converged on the singer's sultry badass-ness, her cruel mouth, her jealous voice, and just how good she looked in those black leather pants. It was enough to make you wish the Island records publicity squad had been on the case back when K.T. Oslin and Carlene Carter were making their best records, since they clearly know what it takes to move a little product around here.
And now so does Lynne. Gone are the forays into Western swing that marked earlier effortsback in the mid '90s, she cowrote the second best song called "Swingtown" everand mostly gone are the torch-song touches that gave I Am Shelby Lynne its sharpest tunes and raw emotional punch. Now, with Alanis's helmsman Glen Ballard twiddling the knobs, Shelby's all about the radio-ready rock'n'soulwhich, of course, offers plenty of aural pleasures too.
Love, Shelby opens with "Trust Me," an edgy little kiss on the cheek that comes with a snaky verse section and a bracing, full-frontal chorus: "I'm your father/I'm your mother . . . " Lynne proclaims with Melissa Etheridge-like bravado but Prince-like inscrutability. " . . . Together we're the perfect picture." Family portraits frame the album, which closes with a reading of John Lennon's "Mother" that forgoes the primal scream treatment Lynne gives the song in concert in favor of Al Green altar-call redemption. It's a revelation, all rightwhen they were just kids, Lynne and her sister Allison watched as their father murdered their mother and then turned the gun on himselfbut the singer's subtlety during the verses is the most powerful thing about it. The track practically oozes forgiveness.
Between those heavy-duty bookends, however, is mostly all manner of shiny, happy popat least compared to the heavy-breathing angst that made up much of the great I Am. The effervescent "Bend"an Off the Wall-style thriller, complete with irresistibly syncopated rhythm, a swoon-worthy string section, and Shelby's most disposable soulful yelp evercould even have jump-started Michael Jackson's comeback, if he'd only been smart enough to buy the copyright. "Tarpoleon Napoleon" keeps it in the family, a tribute to Dad that rekindles I Am's bluesy atmospherics to lightweight but totally charming effect. And "Killin' Kind" makes a triumphant return, floating high above the proceedings like an overstuffed helium balloon headed for the stratosphere, nearly absurd in its regal, classic pop elegance.
Missing in action, though, is the much discussed "Star Broker"a/k/a "Star Fucker" (and not to be confused with the Stones' similarly pissed "Star Star")a rocked-out and stridently anti-industry screed that, lyrically anyway, would warrant comparisons to Pavement's "Fame Throwa," Spoon's "Lafitte Don't Fail Me Now," and Graham Parker's "Mercury Poisoning"except that Shelby refuses to name names. Cranky fans disenchanted with the new LP's carefully modulated AC vibe, however, are referred to their nearest Napster clone, where the caustic track is available for immediate download. It's definitely worth the bandwidth.
But even if "Star Broker" had made the final cut, the record's best rocker would still be "Jesus on a Greyhound," a shaggy savior tale whose title is also the punch line. A simmering, organ-fueled anthem, the track is 90 percent Springsteen reach and 10 percent Mellencamp grasp, so much so that you keep waiting for Shelby to sing about not forgetting from where it is that she comes from. Of course, that never happens. Because Shelby Lynne's not gonna forget, ever.
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