I Can’t Imagine
3.5 out of 5 stars
To paraphrase a cliché, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. Shelby Lynne may currently live in California, but the Alabama raised singer/songwriter has always gravitated to the soulful, greasy, red clay music of her home turf. Lynne’s first album in three years, and Rounder debut, returns to a band format (she played all the instruments on her previous release), thereby expanding her sound. Recording at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana with her road musicians and producing herself also helps the dusky vibe.
Those expecting her to rock out like on the particularly hot DVD show that accompanied last year’s reissue of I Am Shelby Lynne might be disappointed. While the singer/songwriter still may let loose live, her approach here combines predominantly restrained yet emotionally laced threads of folk, rock, jazz, R&B, gospel and country on an expressive batch of originals and co-written tracks. Still, selections such as the tough blues rocking “Down Here” and the churchy ballad “Love is Strong” show she can still ramp up the volume when the spirit hits her. Tracking live in the studio brings relaxed immediacy to the performances and Lynne’s always clear and distinctive vocals have seldom sounded better or more committed.
They make even the tamped down ballads that dominate the set, exemplified by the longing of “Better” and the introspective opening “Paper Van Gogh” (about the freeing art of songwriting), connect with the warmth and genuine emotion that has always infused Lynne’s best work. For “Back Door Front Porch” she says goodbye to her childhood with sensitivity and slight regret.
Still, it’s the pure Dusty Springfield soul of “Sold the Devil (Sunshine)” and the slinky swamp of “Be in the Now” that finds Lynne at her loosest and most natural. A few more tunes in this vein would be welcome, but everything here captures the classy, sometimes sassy and always heartfelt essence that makes Shelby Lynne one of her generation’s most passionate and determined voices.