Shelby Lynne, Merry Christmas
Smooth brass, a warm blanket of a voice, moderately jazzish inflections
Before Shelby Lynne crossed over to the NPR/Adult Alternative/rock critic audience with I Am Shelby Lynne in 1999, she had already been putting out albums for a decade — five of them, all modestly country-charting, and frequently using quaint touches of Tin Pan Alley mint-julep pop and Western swing to fiddle with Nashville formula. That's an aesthetic she returns to on much of 2010's Merry Christmas, her first holiday set: smooth brass, a warm blanket of a voice, moderately jazzish inflections, intermittent molasses-in-December tempos. The album, as tradition dictates, is mostly seasonal standards, though four selections of 11 (or 12, if the opening "Sleigh Ride"/"Winter Wonderland" medley counts as two songs) are either originals or unfamiliar; somewhat poetically, one called "Christmas Time Is Here" precedes a partially talk-sung "Silver Bells" (about "Christmas time in the city"), which precedes one called "Christmas Time Is Coming," an old-timey sort of front-porch bluegrass stomp that ends with a pedal steel secretly whispering notes from "Silent Night." Then comes an almost goth rendition of the dark 1847 hymn "O Holy Night" that really does feel like you've stepped into a small rustic church from the cold, as a pipe organ bangs discordant notes and Lynne mourns "the world in sin and error pining." From there, she manages to diddybop through a standup-bass swing-revival "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," but then slips into five nearly transcendent minutes of seasonal affective disorder with her own "Xmas," the album's obvious centerpiece, about drowning in Christmas-party cocktails to forget what a jerk Dad was, back in the year when you begged him for that ghetto blaster; she seems to be aiming for an early-'70s soul gloom groove, but she winds up closer to Alan Vega's 1981 "No More Christmas Blues," not a bad place to spend one's besotted afternoon off. Then, curiously enough, without losing the depressive mood, she switches gears to the slow roll call of non-scarlet-schnozzed caribou that starts "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." But then Rudolph picks spirits back up, and Lynne ends with two obligatory carols done straight. By that point, you're either unwrapping gifts, or you're face down in the company eggnog bowl.