Moorer and Lynne are sisters with enough turbulent family history to keep them in country songs for the rest of their lives. Recent albums, however, while critically well received, have been more damp squib than fireworks for their labels. Now, within a fortnight of each other they have released very different cover albums, allowing me to raise a perennial question on this difficult subject; are cover albums a contractual obligation, an exercise in vanity, or a chance for the muse to fly? No artist will readily admit the former and there’s a little of the second in every covers albums, so allowing for the benefit of doubt and assuming the latter, a comparison of sibling coverage lends itself well to the art of review.
In the summer of 2006 I gave a lukewarm welcome in issue four of Wears The Trousers to Moorer’s first ‘Mrs. Steve Earle’ album, the pleasant but lightweight Getting Somewhere. In it I wondered if perhaps the rosy hue of being newlywed might not have dulled the usually acerbic tongue and loneliness inherent in her former studio output, and whether the listening was worse off for it. And now we have Mockingbird, an album that includes versions of ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Ring Of Fire’ as well as more esoteric choices by (amongst others) Nina Simone, Chan Marshall and Kate McGarrigle. I single the former two songs out because, aside from being favourites of the artist, I see little reason why the listening public should pay for yet more versions of them. Did we do something wrong in our previous lives? Are we to return in the next as ‘X Factor’ contestants with a Céline Dion fetish? Glibness aside, covering these songs falls strictly into the contractual obligation file, and Moorer adds nothing new to either, if indeed that were possible.
Leaving the opening track aside for a moment, the first number to make you sit up and wonder if there is a fuss to be made is Simone’s ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’. This lends itself well to Moorer’s beautiful voice and phrasing, and the musicians afford the melody the respect it deserves, allowing the song to breathe. A little while later, Gillian Welch’s ‘Revelator’ is perhaps equally as good, though more than once I found myself sifting through my collection for a Welch record as a result. Surely I should be looking for more of Allison? Hubby adds some grit to ‘Daddy, Goodbye Blues’ and ‘Orphan Train’ is nice, but the only other standout cover is Cat Power’s ‘Where Is My Love’, again mainly due to its similarity with Moorer’s previous oeuvre; a plaintive, back-porch torch song sung with passion.
Back to the titular first track, then, which proves to be the album’s true highlight, in which Moorer’s voice is allowed to soar over a cracking melody. It’s a sad state of affairs that it sets you up for an album of the same quality which never arrives, even sadder when you discover that it’s the only original here. Three stars then for her voice, the musicianship and the production values (which are a massive improvement over Getting Somewhere), but back to the drawing board for an artist with enough talent to leave the majority in the shade. This critic is still waiting for Allison to happen.
Shelby Lynne’s post-country twang career most closely resembles an emotional rollercoaster; the lows have been the aural equal of the highs. There’s been little that hasn’t been of exceptional quality. Want intelligent pop? Listen to Love, Shelby. Couldn’t give a toss? Plug into Suit Yourself. Want confused and broken? You’re probably suffering from an Identity Crisis. Despite these frequent changes in direction, Lynne has always taken a road you want to travel down with her. And so, too, her choice of covers. Following receipt of an email from Barry Manilow – what do you mean you don’t get emails from musical legends on a daily basis? – that suggested she look to Springfield as her next adventure, Lynne took some time out and decided to revisit some of the tracks from Dusty’s famous sojourn in Memphis. And how.
In all the ways that her sister’s album disappoints, Just A Little Lovin’ succeeds. From the opening rim-shot and cymbal introduction to the title track, Lynne’s statement of intent is clear. The tempo is slow, the lights are dimmed, the atmosphere akin to the early morning hours of a closed diner or a sticky-carpeted casino with no one left to sing to but the busboy. The songs don’t flow from the speakers so much as ooze. Like her sister, the voice is impeccable and there’s an argument that the material allows Lynne to emote a little more, but regardless, the passion, the hopelessness, the come-hither words are so right it’s uncanny.
‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’, ‘Breakfast In Bed’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore’ are superlative and the songs in-between are nothing like the filler Moorer exhibits as personal choices. To top it all, and in a coincidental nod to her sister’s only original mentioned above, Lynne’s ‘Pretend’ fits so well into the canon of greats she has chosen to purloin that on first listen the uninitiated would struggle to know the difference. And that, of course, is the difference between the siblings; there just seems to have been more excitement, more thought and more care about Lynne’s project as a whole. Whereas Moorer’s Mockingbird will satisfy existing fans for an ultimately short-term period, Lynne’s (I was going to say tribute, but the word seems churlish) paean to what is often argued as the peak of Springfield’s catalogue will surely open more doors and turn on more followers to an already extraordinary career.
This round to Lynne then, competition or no. Her sister will be back and made welcome, but for now take Just A Little Lovin’; who wouldn’t?
[New Line; February 18, 2008 / Lost Highway; February 4, 2008]