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Love Gone Wrong

 

Shelby Lynne: Love, Shelby

Island, 2001

Rating: 1.9

 

 

Posted: November 25, 2001

By Kevin Forest Moreau

2000's I Am Shelby Lynne was as sure and strong a declaration of purpose as any artist had released in recent memory. Heralded as a bracing set of tough, confident and smokily sexy songs steeped in country, R&B, Memphis soul and classic rock and roll, I Am set critics' tongues to wagging and earned Lynne, who'd toiled in the trenches of mainstream country for a few frustrating years, a confusing (if well-deserved) Grammy for Best New Artist. Upon accepting that award, Lynne was right in striking a note of bemusement, seeing as she'd been kicking around Nashville for over a decade. But at the same time, the trophy made a certain amount of sense, because I Am wiped the slate clean, banishing from memory her previous five releases, which had veered from mainstream country to big-band swing influences. Shelby Lynne was now a tabula rasa, and her new career was one many observers made a note to follow with interest.

But it turns out those supporters might have spoken too soon. On the evidence of Lynne's follow-up, the staggeringly off-track Love, Shelby, the title of her previous effort may have been false advertising. Just who is Shelby Lynne, really? Apparently, she's not the heartbreakingly sexy, tough-as-nails spiritual descendant of Dusty Springfield who prowled the corners of I Am. By contrast, the persona that emerges on Love, Shelby is much more vulnerable and insecure, huddling for safety in the comfort of such middle-of-the-road fare as "Trust Me" and "Wall in Your Heart." Polished to a sleek, breezy finish by celebrity producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette), Love, Shelby foregoes the visceral, soul-country grit of its predecessor for a shiny pop sheen designed for Top 40 appeal, which proves a fatal misstep.

Granted, it's not entirely fair to judge Love, Shelby by the standard set by its precursor rather than on its own merits. Okay, then: As a slice of adult-contemporary pop, Love, Shelby succeeds just fine. "Bend" floats by on a featherweight melody tailor-made for doctors' waiting rooms, while "I Can't Wait," a declaration of I-just-wanna-be-loved longing, sounds eerily like an early Sheryl Crow outtake, right down to the opaque self-ache of the chorus.

The uplifting "Killin' Kind," one of few songs on which Lynne claims sole writing credit, promises a return to the Lynne of old, but Ballard, not trusting the understated melody lurking in the chorus, loads up the vocal tracking effects to hammer home its singalong earnestness. The sprightly "Ain't it the Truth" also shows promise, with punchy soul horns and some snarling slide work from ace guitarist Sonny Landreth.

But ultimately, this experiment in MOR-accessibility proves that adult contemporary pop just isn't the right milieu for Lynne, who displays an awkward penchant for embarrassing lyrics when she writes down for the lowest common denominator: The fifth-grade metaphor of "Wall in Your Heart" is beneath her talents, and "Tarpoleon Napoleon," an otherwise credible foray into torch-soul, elicits more than its fair share of winces. Worst of all, the story-song "Jesus on a Greyhound" is so cringingly pedestrian it's painful to hear, rendering Joan Osborne's "One of Us" Pulitzer-worthy by comparison.

It's hard to see what anyone involved with Love, Shelby was thinking -- save for Ballard, who puts too much trust in his heavy-handed approach at the console. It's obvious that somewhere along the way, someone saw a problem -- three songs, "Star Broker," "Break Me Open" and "Close to You," that appeared on initial promotional copies were removed from the final product. But that eleventh-hour bit of surgery wasn't quite enough. It's a shame when the only heartbreak one can find on such a hotly-anticipated follow-up is that of promise unfulfilled, and the only hints of sexiness come from the head-scratching cheesecake poses that dominate the packaging. Sadly, Love makes one feel as if I Am were a lucky fluke, rather than a seasoned songwriter finally finding her voice.

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