Wednesday, August 04, 2010

"How Can I Be Sure" / Shelby Lynne

My first thought, on hearing that country artist Shelby Lynne had released an album of Dusty Springfield covers, was knee-jerk furious. How dare she? Just because Dusty recorded one album in Memphis -- admittedly one of her greatest albums -- it still doesn't mean that she was anything like a country artist. And I just couldn't bear to hear my girl Dusty's songs all twanged-up.

Herewith, then, is my most sincere public apology to Ms. Lynne. Because that album, Just a Little Lovin', is a beautiful thing. Lynne reinterprets a handful of Dusty songs with grace and sensitivity. She has a simply gorgeous voice -- light and silky where Dusty's was powerful and passionate -- and she plays to her own strengths without ever trying to erase Dusty's magnificent versions. These acoustic versions of the Dusty songs are folky renditions that Dusty herself might have done if she were playing small clubs today. Of course they won't replace the originals, but they're a wonderful complement to them.

I was surprised to see this song on the album; I never realized Dusty had recorded it (obsessives like me will be glad to know that you can find it on Dusty in London, long available only as an import). Of course, being the AM radio baby that I was, I only know it through the Young Rascals'* 1967 hit single (it was written by their front man Felix Cavaliere), which one could also steal from one's older brother's bedroom on the album Groovin'.

One thing that always bugged me about this song was its pumped-up passion -- too fervid and sweaty for my taste -- that and the tootling organ, which turned its waltz tempo into a cheesy carousel ride. I am sad to report that Dusty herself carried on in this same spirit, except for course -- being Dusty -- she jacked the passion even higher.

Shelby Lynne, however -- God bless her -- strips all that away. She even goes for a different time signature, dropping the waltz in favor of a samba-like 4/4. Most of all, the lightness of her voice is perfect for a song that is, after all, all about being tentative. [Smacks self on forehead.] What a revelation!

Listen to this track. "How can I be sure?" she asks softly, wistfully, "In a world that's constantly changing / How can I be sure / Where I stand with you?" Doubt edges her voice, just the right degree of uncertainty. "How do I know, maybe you're trying to use me / Flying too high can confuse me" -- her phrasing makes her truly sound hesitant and confused. And the whole "whenever I am away from you" verse works like a dream -- she does sound a little frantic, like she's lost her moorings. When she insists, "I really, really, really want to know" -- well, you honestly believe it.

Twanged up? No way. If anything, this song is really a jazz track, with that delicate, syncopated guitar playing fast and loose with the beat. So much for genres. I see that Shelby Lynne wandered away from the mainstream country pack a while ago, refashioning herself as an alt-country artist with her 2000 album I Am Shelby Lynne. (In a stroke of serendipity, I also learn that her younger sister is Allison Moorer, whom I'm going to see singing with Steve Earle tomorrow night -- who knew?) And far from being a pampered country music queen, she's had more than her share of hardships, both personal and professional. Somehow I always got her mixed up with Shania Twain -- wow, was I off base!

Note to self: You really have to get over that old prejudice against country music, honey. . . .

*Known these days just as the Rascals, for obvious reasons.


Anonymous said...

I swear in a first impression that I heard a touch of Zoey Deschanel here...though perhaps its easier to buy Shelby (I believe she's walked down a dusty road or two)than the enchanting actress on this song.
I first saw Miss Lynne on a Nashville Now (sort of a country Tonight Show, with the host, the coffee table, the sofa) episode where she did a seemingly impromtu (and accompanied only by her own guitar) cover of James Taylor's "Steam Roller Blues." Yeah, she rolled her hips and cat scratched her way through it to the point that I do believe there was condensation on my TV screen.

The Rascals. Yeah, another strong sub set group (just a shelf down from The Kinks, The Beatles) whose followers are fervent. Although they epitomized East Coast sound and were even played on some "race" stations, they never really were my particular cup.

Like the Shelby cover. A lot.


wwolfe said...

I like this version - in part, because it makes a nice contrast to the Rascals' original. Where Eddie Brigati's vocal is all youthful, unguarded openness to the world and its uncertainties, Shelby sings from the more wary perspective of experience. Eddie believes he can handle whatever the great big world throws at him - which is what we ought to believe when we're his age, after all, or how could we ever even take the plunge into grown-up life? - but Shelby has learned first-hand that some of the things life throws at us really hurt. Each singer's reaction to uncertainty is valid for that singer's age and experience, which is what makes the two versions such nice compliments to each other. (By the, David Cassidy had a #1 hit in England with this song in the early 1970s, as his Partidge Family fame was just beginning to wane. I haven't heard his version.)

Anonymous said...

She will be at Mexicali Blues(a great club in NJ) next week.

Holly A Hughes said...

As usual, wwolfe, you've perfectly nailed the difference between the two performances. This restores my faith in the Young Rascals.

I was SO love with David Cassidy back in 1969 (yes, I was a fan before The Partridge Family). But by the time he went solo, and was going for the international market, I had moved on to what seemed to me better things. His cover is perfectly okay -- the guy really did have a voice -- but the arrangement's a little too Andy Williams for me. Considering what else there was to listen to in 1972...

wwolfe said...

Thanks, Holly.