"Down to Believing" by Allison Moorer and "I Can’t Imagine" by Shelby Lynne

Shelby Lynne
I Can’t Imagine
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Allison Moorer
Down to Believing
Entertainment One Music
3 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The Sisters Moorer have never been shy about peeling back layers to expose their truth. The resulting music has often been incredibly enlightening and enjoyable, but almost as frequently overwrought and indulgent.

On their most recent releases, we get a balance of these elements.

Almost universally favorably reviewed and produced by guitarist Kenny Greenberg, who served in the same role for her first two albums, Down to Believing provided Allison Moorer with her most significant chart impact since 2000. Despite its relatively modest stay on the charts, Down to Believing appears to have been designed with modern radio influences in mind. Moorer has always produced music with more than a bit of sheen, and any bite that may have previously been present has been wholly removed from the bulk of Down to Believing. Despite its gloss and seeming (and misguided) Sheryl Crow aspirations, this recording has much to offer.

Songs like “Tear Me Apart,” “If I Were Stronger,” and the title track are powerful, stylised songs that make up for their lack of grit and personality with an abundance of production that may well should have—but ultimately didn’t—find its way onto country radio. (Also, could “I Lost My Crystal Ball” be the last pop-rock/country song that includes the ‘wrecking ball’ metaphor? Please?)

While these songs may express emotions, genuine impressions, and poetic reflections from a failed marriage and the challenges of motherhood, they’re just not particularly remarkable.

On what those of us of a certain age would call Side Two, the album’s strongest songs, “Blood” (written with her sister in mind), “Back of My Mind,” “I’m Doing Fine,” and “Wish I”  connect with this listener because of intrinsic power, not calculated bluster. “Mama Let the Wolf In” is angry and unforgiving. The acoustic closer “Gonna Get It Wrong” reveals that Moorer is at her best when minimally accompanied, honestly exposed and singing in her true voice and nature.

On first impression a cover of Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” appears unnecessary, but when she sings the words “when it’s over, so they say, it’ll rain a sunny day,” Moorer is closing the cover on a turbulent decade, and one hopes that Moorer will find her stride across the entirety of the next album.

Shelby Lynne scares me a little. I’m never entirely sure of what I’m going to hear when Lynne releases an album, and while that unpredictability could be exciting, for me it is more often unsettling.

While I’ve appreciated her since the first time I heard “If I Could Bottle This Up,” a single with George Jones that predated her Billy Sherrill-produced debut, Lynne’s recordings have been inconsistent. Tough All Over, Temptation, I Am Shelby Lynne, and Just A Little Lovin’, as diverse a group of recordings from a single artist might be, remain favorites. Other albums, Soft Talk, Love, Shelby, and Tears, Lies, and Alibis, are uneven and, in places, unbearable.

I Can’t Imagine is largely successful; but like Moorer’s Down to Believing, it is uneven.

The first thing that I noticed when listening to the album is the strength of Lynne’s voice: that hasn’t changed. Alternately soulful, swampy, and blue and breezy, front porch-loose, even when the lyrical material is marginally questionable (as on “Back Door, Front Porch”), those trademark tones makes one notice her performance.

Further listening reveals that any connection to country music—be it classic, modern, alt- or otherwise—must be an accidental influence of who Lynne has always been. Overall, I Can’t Imagine is less Anywhere, Country than it is an expression of genre-free, Carole King/James Taylor impressionistic performance: labels have seldom (ever?) mattered to Lynne, and she continues that free-wheeling search for the perfect sound throughout this expansive recording.

Actually, rather than King and Taylor, given the album’s musical breadth and flamboyance, a more accurate point of reference might be Brian Wilson’s ambitious That Lucky Old Sun.

Two songs stuck out upon initial listening, “Love Is Strong” and “Be In the Now.” Both reminded me of Ron Sexsmith, whose excellent and under-appreciated Carousel One has been playing in the car this week. I wasn’t surprised then to review the liner notes to find that these were co-written by Sexsmith, one of North America’s most impressive pop songwriters (in the magical and positive, ’70s singer-songwriter tunesmith sense of the “pop” word).

The standout performance is perhaps “Down Here,” one of five songs credited to Lynne alone. Over a bed of restrained instrumental elegance—guitars, bass, Wurlitzer, percussion, and just a sliver of pedal steel—Lynne testifies (along with a choir of friends) of her “dark, Dixie closet,” “Oh, lightning strike away the pain, thunder clap away the shame; truth is a masquerade: down here.” The song builds in intensity over its five-minute run, revealing a fragmented reality that is honest, affecting, and no little bit joyful.

Any negative impression the album leaves with this listener is similar to that which impacted the earliest parts of the Moorer release: how much of the album sticks when it is over? After a week of listening to I Can’t Imagine, the melodies and words of a few songs had a lasting impact. The remaining tracks, including “Paper Van Gogh,” “I Can’t Imagine,” and “Following You,” faded.

Allison Moorer’s Down to Believing and Shelby Lynne’s I Can’t Imagine each contain a selection of outstanding, memorable songs and performances weakened by too many filler tracks. Of the two, on balance Lynne’s is the more impressive as a result of the soulful depth her voice and music continue to possess.

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