critic’s pick 3

shelby lynneWe have here two new recordings that reference, in varying degrees, the pop generation that preceded them.

In the case of Americana renegade Shelby Lynne and her new tribute album to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin’, the retro romancing borders on the obsessive, even though the resulting music is far from an act of imitation. I Am Lightning, the North American recording debut of Liam Finn, lets the son of Crowded House founder/leader Neil Finn glance back at generational elders. But since Dad is part of the record, such reverence is unavoidable.

Just a Little Lovin’ is a high-risk affair from the word go. It rightfully gives credit where credit is due on the front cover with the subtitle “Inspired by Dusty Springfield.” Then it kicks off with the album’s title tune, a reverie of romantic bliss that also began Dusty in Memphis, the iconic merger of mainstream pop of white Southern soul that hit stores 39 years ago this month. 

The calculation pays off because we also get to quickly note the stylistic diversions in these idol/disciple renditions. Springfield’s Just a Little Lovin’ set the pace for nearly all of Dusty in Memphis as husky vocals swelled over string and brass arrangements by Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. Lynne also ties the vastly more subdued cool of her album to Just a Little Lovin’. Her take is slower, softer and decidedly bluesier.

The album doesn’t reflect the blues in any real Southern sense, although light country acoustics lighten the Lynne original Pretend as well as her barnyard ramble reading of Tony Joe White’s Willie and Laura Mae Jones (also cut by Springfield as a single in 1969). Instead, the feel opts for a sleepier mood. Springfield, on her masterwork, sounded serenely soulful. Lynne sounds blue and, at times, a little blasted. That her record achieves such fascinating reserve with veteran pop producer Phil Ramone -hardly anyone’s embodiment of Mr. Soul – is all the more remarkable.

With Finn, the connection to his father’s expert pop instincts – and, to a lesser extent, the more extravagant stylistic leanings of his uncle, Split Enz’ Tim Finn – are obvious. That familiar, high and richly emotive vocal clarity leaps to life on the album-opening Better to Be and then tilts and warps the album’s expectations to his advantage. 

The lyrical but unvarnished melodies of Gather at the Chapel and Wide Awake on the Voyage Home recall less of Crowded House and more of the unsettled pop Father Neil designed on a pair of overlooked solo records cut after his band’s initial mid-90s breakup. Son Liam jumps on these rougher edges readily for the lean power pop charge of This Place is Killing Me and Energy Spent. The homemade air pervading the rest of the album comes naturally, as well. As he often works as a one man band of sorts in concert, Finn plays the majority of the album’s instruments. Dad adds bass to I’ll Be Lightning‘s title tune, while assorted drum, bass and autoharp duties are similarly farmed out. 

Still, I’ll Be Lightning, for all its family-style inspiration, is the product of a very singular pop intellect. The guitars glisten and chatter, the grooves quake with modest beats and the singing, hand-me-down as it may seem, is a welcoming, conversational device. You quickly sense that Finn has little want of shunning his artistic heritage even though his own pop voice moved out on its own long ago.

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