Other than a hiccup of piano and guitar, all that we hear during the opening bars of Shelby Lynne’s sublimely parched remake of Dusty Springfield’s “Just A Little Lovin’” is the 1-2-3 of the cymbal, set off, every other measure, by a rim shot on the snare. Guitarist Dean Parks and piano player Rob Mathes trade gossamer lines for the ensuing 30-odd seconds, their musical byplay suggestive of lovers tracing the contours of each other’s skin.
Nearly a minute elapses before Lynne finally enters, her voice a mix of lassitude and desire as she purrs, “Just a little lovin’/Early in the mornin’/Beats a cup of coffee/For startin’ off the day.” After singing the second verse and letting eight pregnant seconds pass, she gasps, “This old world/Wouldn’t be half as bad/It wouldn’t be half as sad/If each and everybody in it had,” before emitting a series of moans.
On first listen, her protracted caesura sounds almost wrong. It’s as if we’re privy to a broken take, a flubbed entrance, and yet just the opposite is the case: She’s working on getting things right here. Poised on an emotional precipice that belies her cooing about breakfast sex, Lynne, not ready to utter aloud how empty a world without love would be, ponders the abyss a while longer.
A pause of four bars might have lent her performance symmetry. The opening drum soliloquy, after all, is eight bars long, the pad a deux between Parks and Mathes another multiple of four at sixteen.
But Lynne’s outpouring isn’t about proportions. It’s about confronting the bitter fact that so many people live without the love for which she thirsts. Coming to terms with this painful realization, she takes that excruciatingly empathetic extra measure to gather herself, and only then finds “that little something extra,” as she puts it, “that’ll kinda see you through.”
Though deeply informed by Springfield’s original, Lynne’s performance sounds nothing like it, and that’s the point. The same is true of the eight other Springfield numbers she reimagines on Just A Little Lovin’, including Donnie Fritts’ “Breakfast In Bed”, which, like the title track, first appeared on the epochal Dusty In Memphis LP. Peeling back the big arrangements and orchestration to which we’ve grown so accustomed, Lynne exposes the longing on the verge of desperation at the songs’ core.
Just about everything on her album, which comes out February 5 on Lost Highway, has this Dusty/not-Dusty effect, even “Pretend You Love Me”, the one new song she wrote for the project. According to the album’s producer, Phil Ramone, who first worked with Springfield on her bossa nova-inflected smash “The Look Of Love”, the record isn’t so much a tribute to the late singer as “a reminder of what’s in her soul.”
“Shelby dug into the songs in a whole other way,” Ramone went on to say, speaking by phone from New York. “You wouldn’t compare any of it to Dusty in terms of form, other than the way that she attacked the songs.
“Dusty lived in a period when a lot of things were high and flowery and exaggerated – very campy in some ways. Whereas when you break it down to the raw absolute — that for me is what Shelby does to the songs.”
“It had to be done so differently,” admitted Lynne, wrapped in a roomy black sweater and sipping hot tea at Eat restaurant in Loew’s Vanderbilt Plaza on a blustery Nashville morning. “It could easily have not been the right thing to do. It’s kind of like treading on sacred waters here.”
It certainly is, but these songs have been around long enough, and embraced reflexively for so long, that they were due for reinvention. A singer who reinvented herself mid-career by channeling the emotional, if not necessarily the musical, heart of Dusty Springfield, Lynne was as primed to do to it as anyone.
That said, some songs you just have to leave alone.
“You don’t cut ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’,” she said. “Come on. That’s when I would have been committing suicide on this idea. I thought about it, but not for long. That would be death. That’s really walking on tombstones.
“My way of thinking about the project was really pretty simple: Choose the songs that move me the most and make ‘em mine. So I did. Dusty’s already done her versions and these are mine. But she’s the inspiration behind the choosing of the songs. She recorded them and I’m a fan. I want people to remember her again.”
Indeed, and maybe the most remarkable thing about Springfield is how, for all the heartache she conveyed, she was a singer who, per Thomas Mann’s observation in Death In Venice, viewed composure in the face of pain as not just a matter of endurance, but an active achievement. Even, to some degree, a triumph.
Though she seems frailer in person, if only because she’s so petite, the image Lynne projects onstage and in print — tough, irascible, ever on her guard — has none of the emotional transparency that, in addition to the clothes, hair and makeup, made Springfield so iconic.
“Dusty’s just so vulnerable,” Lynne said. “She needs you. She just has everything exposed. When you hear her sing, you feel like you just want to put your arms around her.
“I was looking at some DVDs, trying to get a feeling for her before I made the record. I got what I could. There’s not a lot. I found a concert she did at Royal Albert Hall [in 1979]. She didn’t perform much. She was scared to perform, and when she would, she would hardly be able to show up on time. For this particular show, she was four hours late, and there were more people there then than there were when the show was supposed to start. But there she was, all open and exposed.
“It’s different for me as a performer,” Lynne went on. “I’ve never been able to be too vulnerable. I guess maybe we’re opposites as far as that’s concerned because I really don’t need anybody. I’m trying to learn from her, though.”
Just A Little Lovin’ certainly attests as much, and not merely from the way Lynne fingers the jagged grain of the title track. Just as devastating is her soul-on-ice version of “Anyone Who Had A Heart”. And this is to say nothing of her naked take on “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”, the first 30 seconds of which she sings a cappella, in contrast to the billowy strings, melodramatic piano triplets and cavernous Wall of Sound at the beginning of Springfield’s original.