I’ve never been an enormous fan of tribute albums. When you cobble together a random collection of musical acts and set them to the task of covering the songs of a selected artist, the end result is almost always a hit-and-miss affair. Despite sharing a common lineage of song origins, such anthologies always seem to lack musical cohesion.
On the other hand, when a single artist takes on the challenge of recording a tribute album entirely on their own, the results are almost always more compelling. The recent Pete Seeger tribute album by Bruce Springsteen (“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”) is one great example. Other great sets include Holly Cole’s tribute to Tom Waits (“Temptation”), Jennifer Warnes’ collection of Leonard Cohen songs (“Famous Blue Raincoat”), and even Erasure’s update on Abba (“Abba-esque”).
Now Shelby Lynne has taken on the music of 60’s and 70’s soul legend Dusty Springfield, and the result is both unexpected and brilliant.
On her new CD, “Just A Little Lovin’,” Lynne takes nine of Springfield’s signature tunes, strips them bare and reinterprets them. Backed by a Spartan quartet of musicians and eschewing the horns and strings featured so prominently on the original recordings, Lynne delivers a decidedly intimate set of songs that have as much of a late night coffeehouse feeling as a sensual bedroom vibe.
This jazzy-sexy-cool sound may surprise some listeners, as Shelby Lynne is typically considered a country artist. Of course, anyone who has followed Lynne’s musical evolution knows her output is frequently genre-defying. In fact, there’s only one song in the set that even comes close to being country (“Willie and Laura Mae Jones”), though it is more blues/bluegrass influenced than anything else.
Furthermore, there’s not a bit of twang in Lynne’s vocals, which most closely resemble the smooth, jazzy stylings of Diana Krall. Taking the stripped down concept even further, Lynne has recorded the entire album without any background or harmony vocals, putting her flawless voice front and center. It’s a wise choice that only enhances the musical experience as a whole.
Also worth noting is the complete absence of any over the top vocal histrionics. At a time when television’s most popular program is a singing competition where every vocalist seems determined to give the biggest performance possible, it’s refreshing to hear an artist so effectively prove that less can indeed be more. This should be required listening for any aspiring American Idols.
Shelby Lynne also deserves kudos for her song selection. Some would consider the omission of “Son of a Preacher Man” to be a misstep, but its absence actually serves the collection well. Dusty’s classic “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” comes off like a tender lover’s whisper, while “I Only Want To Be With You” will make Norah Jones wish she’d had the idea of doing a Dusty tribute first. “Breakfast In Bed” gets a little funky, with bluesy Bonnie Raitt style guitar and vocal flourishes. And when Lynne gets “The Look of Love,” you’ll want to dim the lights and loosen up your tie.
If there’s a weak point on the album, it’s the inclusion of the sole non-Dusty song in the set, “Pretend.” It’s not that Lynne’s original composition isn’t good, but placed alongside classics by songwriting legends like Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it can’t help but feel just a little insignificant.
When it comes to doing tributes and cover songs, I’ve always felt that if an artist doesn’t bring something new to their interpretations, they’re not worth redoing. The cover of this album says it’s “Inspired by Dusty Springfield.” In choosing inspiration rather than imitation, Shelby Lynne has taken a collection of songs so representative of their era and made them truly timeless. Dusty would be proud.
This review originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of TC Style magazine