Eleven years ago, Shelby Lynne transformed herself from country music also-ran into mainstream Grammy-winning star with her righteous crossover album, I Am Shelby Lynne. Since then she’s had mixed fortunes; 2001′s Love, Shelby was a disappointing effort but she pulled things back a little with 2003′s Identity Crisis and 2005′s Suit Yourself. Then, in 2008, she scored her biggest chart hit with Just A Little Lovin’, an exquisite set of Dusty Springfield covers, only to fall out with her major label backers Lost Highway and set up her own label, Everso Records. This year’s Tears, Lies & Alibis saw Lynne venture further away from her country roots, even trying out some strutting acoustic power-pop, so the release of Merry Christmas comes with a sense of the unexpected.
Despite the homely cover portrait, it seems unlikely that Lynne and her sister Allison Moorer had all that many merry Christmases as kids given the domestic abuse they suffered at the hands of their alcoholic father and, ultimately, the deeply tragic consequences that left them orphaned. It’s no surprise, then, that Lynne turns her burnished vocals to more thoughtful material. As subdued as her takes on the likes of ‘Christmas Time Is Here’, ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Silver Bells’ are, the self-penned ‘Xmas’ makes for the most intense listen despite the ill-advised smooth jazz backing. Here, Lynne spins a painfully personal yarn about her childhood neglect (sample lyric: “Holiday cocktails make me forget / the gifts that Daddy never opened”), which may well make you choke on your sprouts.
Luckily, these party non-starters are interspersed by brighter inclusions. ‘Christmastime’s A-Coming’ is knees-up bluegrass, while acoustic readings of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ (which flank poor ‘Xmas’) are sweetly chipper. Lynne’s other original tune, the could-be classic ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas’, swings with all the blue-eyed soul she can muster atop a shuffling, rhythmic acoustic backdrop. Merry Christmas, then, is an album of opposites, but one that fans should find rewarding. Only the bookending tracks – the introductory medley of ‘Sleigh Bells’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ and the closing ‘White Christmas’ – feel extraneous; the rest is well worth half an hour of your Christmas Day listening.
[Everso; November 14, 2010]