"This is easy, this is gravy, I feel like a little baby, this feels like a natural fade, I won't die alone."
As I write, I'm listening to Suit Yourself by Shelby Lynne (at last). Having subscribed to her email newsletter I was of course bound to fall victim to a careful programme of marketing hype, and over the couple of months I've been looking forward to this new record I've grown more convinced than ever I was that Ms Lynne is the Real Thing.
But what do we mean when we talk about the Real Thing? I remember having a discussion with Roy over 10 years ago about the concept/construct of authenticity. I said then that I didn't really believe in authenticity in that existential sense, that instead I tended to believe that things were somehow always-already received and processed.
Dr Dave, of our lecturers at University, talked about this sort of thing in connection with early encounters with Native Americans. Somehow, didn't matter how early it was, but the "discoverers" of the New World always seemed to find a native who could already speak Spanish or English. In other words, and to generalise wildly from an apocryphal tale, one man's authenticity is another's construct.
Keith Richards has said that there's no such thing as a recording of an acoustic guitar. Because a microphone is a kind of pick-up, so as soon as you stick one in front of an acoustic, it's an electric. Anyone who has struggled with the problem of recording an acoustic guitar successfully will know what he means. You can make a "nice" recording of an acoustic guitar, but you can never make it sound the way it does in a room as you are playing it.
When we receive music, then, it is always-already produced and processed, even when it is made to sound "live" and spontaneous. One of the reasons I loved Springsteen bootlegs was the feeling that hearing an entire concert, warts and all, was a more authentic experience of the man's music. But don't kid yourself that there aren't people intervening all the way down the production chain.
Suit Yourself starts with some studio chatter. This is not entirely a new idea. What song is it starts, "Okay, here we go..."? Dylan says, "Is it rolling, Bob?" at the beginning of Nashville Skyline and Lennon shouts, "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of Helter Skelter. But though those moments are put there
, a conscious decision made to include them, they do add to the life of the music, make it seem more authentic.
What's the opposite of authentic? Well, we all know: pop idol type things, Children Who Audition doing karaoke versions of hits of the past. I was listening to some Shelby in the car last night, and I was thinking, some of this is the kind
of music they do on Pop Idol; but the crucial difference here is that, even if someone did do one of these songs, the viewing public wouldn't have heard it all before.
Because with overexposure even the best music becomes inauthentic, doesn't it? That's why I hate those radio formats that drive "Classic Tracks" into your brain. Reducing a musical era to the half-dozen songs that everybody knows. That's why your Dawson's Creek/OC/Party of Five type TV programmes grate on the nerves after a while: wall-to-wall product placement of the kind of music people who like that kind of show
are supposed to like.
There's a chance you might hear a Shelby Lynne track on a programme like that, I admit the possibility. As Nick Hornby wrote in 37 songs, the problem now is that the people who grew up in the same era as I did, and later, are now producing adverts and television shows. And they put the music in that they like, obviously. For some reason, they are unable to detect that they are destroying any pleasure you might take in that music by glomming it into a glorified soap opera. It becomes as cheesy as the music played at Jason and Kylie's wedding, all those years ago.
So what am I saying? Ms Lynne isn't exactly obscure - I know in the States she's been on the Tonight show, and she's won a Grammy. Ironically, she won a Grammy for "Best New Artist" for her 2000 record, as if it was a debut, and as if she hadn't been recording for Epic in Nashville for fucking years
before that. She even, ironically, won an Horizon awards at the CMAs about 7 years before she won her "Best New Artist" Grammy.
She's a dues paid musician who has circulated around the music business, who has recorded Country, pop, rock, soul type music, and who continues to work in a climate that legislates against that sort of thing. I read somewhere recently that some record execs had been overheard talking about how "disappointing" sales of Sheryl Crow's last record were - because it only sold a couple of million copies. As that other musical maverick, Steve Earle, has said, two million records is a lot
. And you can make a good living selling 50,000 or so, and playing live.
I don't know how many copies of "Suit Yourself" will sell. I've bought two myself (!). But it does seems amazing, in an industry that sucks the life out of talent and spits it out after a couple of records, that Shelby Lynne exists. You hear the studio chatter on Suit Yourself because she produced it, and she wanted people to know she'd produced it - first at her home studio and then at her bass player's home studio.
You know she's doing her own thing, because the music doesn't fit a radio format. It's certainly not country, and it's too spiky and personal to be pop; it's traditional "rock", as invented by Dylan and the Beatles, but the only radio formats who play that sort of thing in the States are the sort that only
play the likes of Dylan and the Beatles. It's got a lot of soul, but it's not Soul music. It's kind of folky and down-home at times, but doesn't really fit a mould.
On "I Cry Every Day", about halfway through the song, you hear some studio chatter again, this time, talking about the backing vocals: "Yeah, something like that," you hear her say. It's brilliant to hear that kind of thing, so why don't you hear it more often? The answer to that is a long one, but the short version of it is that the engineers and producers who run the music industry really do suck the life out of everything.
Take the obsession with noise, for example. Your out-of-the-mould engineer type will go to great lengths to eliminate noise. The instinctive creative type, however, knows that eliminating all the noise is (a) impossible and (b) undesirable, because taking away the noise destroys the original. It's always-already there, the noise, as Michel Serres said, the rat in the foundations.
To summarise, there's no such thing as existential authenticity, because some kind of mediation is always-already there; on the other hand, if you make no attempt to eliminate the actual process of mediation, you can provide as much authenticity as it is possible to have in recorded music. She leaves the sound of the crickets outside the window. You hear her arriving at the final arrangement, concluding, "This is easy, this is gravy..." at the end of a song she wrote in half an hour.
Suit Yourself is laid back to horizontal, sounds fantastic, and simply packed with superb songs. She's a great singer with good taste, and a very musical sensibility. The bonus track on iTunes, by the way, is "A Rainy Night in Georgia," which you only get if you buy the whole album. It's acoustic, clean, very laid back, and after the excellent acoustic guitar solo near the end, you hear a male voice say, "Well played."musicreviewsuityourselfshelbylynneshelby