- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

Shelby Lynne

Suit Yourself

Capitol Records

“My back porch is not a grand location,” Shelby Lynne announces on a cut from her new album, “Suit Yourself.”

Maybe not.

Yet the disc — officially Miss Lynne’s ninth, but just the third since 2000’s watershed “I Am Shelby Lynne” — often sounds as if it were recorded on a back porch, and the music, a winning cocktail of blues, R&B; and folk-pop, couldn’t be grander.

Working with musicians such as keyboardist Benmont Tench and legendary country-rock singer-songwriter Tony Joe White, Miss Lynne recorded a proper studio album in Nashville, where for many years — her debut came out in 1989 — she struggled to find a focus for her restless eclecticism.

On several songs here, she purposely left the fingerprints of home-recording demos and studio chatter on the finished product, lending “Suit Yourself” a tone and texture even more stripped down than on 2003’s excellent “Identity Crisis.”

Not that the songs, in their completed state, bear much polish. “You Don’t Have a Heart” boasts raw, Keith Richards-style guitar chords. “Go With It” and “I Cry Everyday” have the warmth and immediacy of Muscle Shoals-era soul and R&B.; The Lyle Lovett-inspired country-blues of “You’re the Man,” cinched by Robby Turner’s supple Dobro playing, is one-take playful. A cover of Mr. White’s classic “Rainy Night in Georgia” (identified namelessly as “Track 12”) rambles on for a sleepy, searching 71/2 minutes.

Albums as unvarnished as this — mostly acoustic, without a lot of bells and whistles — are often vehicles for confessional unburdening. “Suit Yourself” has its moments of first-person malaise, but Miss Lynne, who seems to pay great attention to intertwining her lyrics and melodies, wears her heart in her chest, rather than on her sleeve.

“Where Am I Now” hints at woes of dislocation and a longing for “the safety net of home.” “I Cry Every Day” sounds too sex-kittenish to be literally true. “Johnny Met June” perhaps anticipates Miss Lynne’s role as Johnny Cash’s mother in the forthcoming biopic “Walk the Line” — but not really: It’s Miss Lynne’s real-life reflection on hearing the news of Mr. Cash’s passing.

The quiet masterpiece of the album, “Sleep,” makes poetry out of a need for some shut-eye. A weary Miss Lynne pleads for a night’s rest while plainly asking for relief from waking-hour anxieties. (“A pillow made from my momma’s womb” — how does that sound to your aching bones?)

“Suit Yourself” comes four years after Miss Lynne’s well-intentioned swing at mainstream success, the Glen Ballard-produced “Love, Shelby.” In this business, it’s often said that a hit-seeking album like that is less “honest” than the casual-sounding fare of “Suit Yourself.”

In this case, the rock-press cliche is essentially true: Shelby Lynne made the album she wanted to make. If you don’t like it, suit yourself.

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