Some artists are destined to wander through their musical lives like gypsies, never staying in one place for long and never quite connecting with an audience as deeply or durably as their gifts suggest they should.
After a decade searching for a sound in Nashville, country rebel Shelby Lynne seemed to find her footing in 2000 when she released "I Am Shelby Lynne," a collection of roots-rock originals as pointed and purposeful as its title. But she followed it with a slick, forced rock album, and after that a self-penned survey of American popular music (called "Identity Crisis"), and then a set of loose, organic demos.
So it comes as no surprise that the next chapter in Lynne's odyssey finds her reinterpreting the Dusty Springfield songbook - specifically, the "Dusty in Memphis" period. Why? At this point the question is: Why not?
"Just a Little Lovin'," out today, is a sparse, elegant reworking of familiar tunes and rarities recorded by the great white soul singer, plus one of Lynne's originals. It's a great conceptual fit for Lynne, who is Springfield's heir on a number of levels: as a powerhouse vocalist capable of fabulous subtlety and intimacy, and an eclectic drawn to the spotlight.
But Lynne hasn't enjoyed nearly the commercial success Springfield did, so channeling the legend and her much-loved catalog feels faintly like shorthand for reaching those elusive masses of music lovers that have bitterly disappointed her (Lynne's made no secret of it) by not showing up.
Mostly, the album feels like a compromise. Veteran producer Phil Ramone's settings are lean but endlessly genteel, and the sound toggles dangerously between warm glow and session-man sheen. The decision to steer clear of the lush orchestration associated with Springfield's era is understandable - a good cover is a reimagined cover. But it's a fine line between stripped down and stripped clean, and the four-man, A-list rhythm section that plays on all 10 tracks keeps it tame, at times to the point of tedium.
Lynne's delivery, too, is careful. At moments there's great beauty and resonance in her restraint. Lynne drains every bit of drama from "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and the effect is deeply humbling. She strains the sugar and bounce from "I Only Want to Be With You," leaving a bittersweet bossa nova in its place, and delicately transforms one of the most glorious pop songs in the canon with her spare, abstract rendition of "How Can I Be Sure."
But the wild, complicated heart that sets Lynne apart from the pack of golden-throated songbirds is muted here. Her personality doesn't surface - and neither does a groove - until midway through the disc, on a bluesy trio of tunes: "Breakfast in Bed," "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," and "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore." And then we're hit with it - sly phrasing, serious attitude, a spontaneous laugh, soul - like a double shot after a downbeat day.
Lynne's single contribution to the collection, an airy supplication called "Pretend" (as in, "Hurt me one more night/ Just pretend you love me"), complements the disc's classy-pop feel but pales in the company of timeless compositions like "The Look of Love."
And yet, pleasant as it is to hear Lynne sing that Burt Bacharach-Hal David gem, her recording speaks more to the ruling power of the