Cover girls

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  February 4, 2008

The album’s hardest, most undeniable performance is the one that closes it, Marshall’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” The original was something of a trampoline for Mitchell’s quavery young soprano. It caught your ear (and, occasionally, the ear of every dog in a three-block radius), but the swooniness of the vocal, the show Mitchell made of her emotions, could make you cringe. When she sang, “Acid, booze, and ass/Needles, guns, and grass/Lots of laughs,” the last line, trying desperately for somber irony, felt forced; she couldn’t disguise a sliver of shocked disapproval. There’s no virginity in Marshall’s vocal. She enumerates that deadly shopping list as if she were Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid saying that foolishness consists of hating the desert because there’s no water in it. On the version that closes Jukebox, Spooner Oldham adds a steady pulse of organ. It’s not a sound that comes close to resolving itself but the sound of turbulence as permanent fixture. “I accept chaos,” Bob Dylan once wrote on an album’s liner notes. Jukebox sounds like Cat Power responding, “The hell can you do?”

On Just a Little Lovin’ (Lost Highway) it’s hard to say whether Shelby Lynne even accepts the idea that she’s making a tribute to Dusty Springfield. Nine of the 10 songs are Dusty’s. And though Lynne and producer Phil Ramone (best known for the MOR work he’s done with Streisand, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon) don’t break out the strings (evidently to keep from being accused of competing with the memory of Springfield’s songs), those might not have hurt.

The sound of Just a Little Lovin’ is spare, understated. The guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards are arranged to sound like what you might hear in a small club. And listening to Lynne’s vocals (like the whole album, they’re best heard on headphones), you can visualize her in the center of a small stage, singing as if tossing the numbers off.

I’m not saying Lynne doesn’t care about what she’s doing here. There’s a great deal of respect for Springfield, and after a spate of albums she herself wasn’t happy with, Just a Little Lovin’ (the idea for the project was suggested to her by Barry Manilow, whom she met at an awards function a few years back) seems Lynne’s way of returning herself to priorities. It’s pleasant and listenable and well-crafted. But damned if I can say why it was made.

Sometimes, not putting on a show can be the biggest show of all. Lynne’s wordless humming and her abrupt and extended pauses on the title track (which opens the album) seem planned to make us think that the performances are spontaneous. There are moments where the moody undersinging she does makes your own memory of Dusty’s voice fuzzy, as if its particular qualities were blurring in your mind’s ear.

That might work to Lynne’s advantage here, because when you do recover the differences, the contrast between her sullen mopiness and Dusty’s open heartbreak doesn’t work in her favor. The soul has been knocked out of “Breakfast in Bed,” the special combination of eroticism and sorrow out of the title song. (You can’t blame Lynne for not matching “The Look of Love,” the greatest pillow-talk song of all time.)

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