Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer: Not Dark Yet
Thirty Tigers – 18 August 2017
The names Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer will be more familiar to our readers as solo artists in their own right. With a shared output of over 20 albums, a Grammy award, an Oscar nomination and a host of other plaudits between them, it’s perhaps surprising that these Alabama born sisters have never, until now, released a studio album together. However, since Moorer announced last November that ‘the sissy record is coming’, there’s been widespread speculation about what form the album will take. At last, the waiting is over and Not Dark Yet, the first studio album from Moorer & Lynne, is released today.
It’s perhaps surprising that two such accomplished song writers should, when finally recording an album together, decide to create an album almost entirely of cover versions. As the album opens with guitar and sombre vocal for The Killers’ My List, it’s soon clear that there are many more surprises in store – and all of them welcome. As Shelby and Allison trade verses; piano and Hammond organ, acoustic and electric guitar create peaks and troughs of emotion in between the combined voices of the chorus. Teddy Thompson‘s sparse production allows ample space to keep those two perfectly matched voices at the centre of our attention, which is no small feat considering the interpretation of the songs may well be the first thing on many listeners’ minds.
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer grew up on a 1,000-acre farm in Alabama, learning music and song together, encouraged by their parents’ love of country music. Those musical beginnings are very much to the fore on Not Dark Yet. The careful harmonies and the strong country sound of The Louvin Brothers’ Every Time You Leave disperses hope and despair in equal measure; the gently upbeat Silver Wings evokes Merle Haggard’s original, but with the added pathos of a lonely dance floor, Ben Peeler‘s slide guitar, and strong vocal harmonies. Ben’s guitar takes on more wistful tones for the dreamy I’m Looking For Blue Eyes, as the sisters take the song a few more steps from Nashville than Jessi Colter’s original.
By the late 1990s, both sisters had earned a steady following. Allison was writing country albums of the highest calibre, while Shelby’s more musically mainstream rebellion took her all the way to the West Coast. It’s a move that’s perhaps best reflected in the decision to include their own version of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, where the bright lights and theatre Cave’s performance are stripped away to reveal a lament for love. By contrast, a soft wail and a Telstar twang of mandolin pervades the lively arrangement for Lungs (Townes Van Zandt), and the simply beautiful sibling harmonies enjoy perhaps their most accomplished outing among the acoustic guitar and brushed snare of The Color Of A Cloudy Day. The gently upbeat pace belies the sadness and loss in Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires‘ lyric, as Hammond organ tugs at the heart and hopes fade with the final ‘I can never find you…’. The glorious dissonance of Nirvana’s Lithium is the album’s strongest nod to the world of rock. Power-laden guitars and garage drum beat pulse behind the minor key harmonies that seem a tribute to Cobain himself.
At the beating heart of the album, though, is the title track, Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. Typical of the album’s low-key approach; percussion leads the way for a guitar and piano led country rock outing. There’s a glimmer of hope in the lyric as a barely perceptible organ seems to gain strength from the power of the vocal harmonies.
In their musical careers Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer have both written songs about the trauma that set the course of their lives; their father taking their mother’s life, then his own, when Lynne was 17 and Moorer 14. The album’s closing track, Is It Too Much, the only song on the album co-written by the sisters, reflects the darkness of their early trauma.
The bond between Allison and Shelby is a strong one and Is It Too Much seems to confirm that although they’ve lead separate musical careers mutual support has always been an important aspect of the separate lives. The extended introduction of soft guitar and piano, and the occasional wash of cymbal seems to be drifting tentatively towards something fragile and insubstantial. Again, alternating the vocal for the verses, the song gains strength and power as those harmonies come into play; mutual strength and understanding is confirmed in an intimate acknowledgement of their shared burden…
No one else bears this heavy load
Don’t you know you ain’t by yourself?
I’m right here to help you lay it down.
Not Dark Yet would never have been the confident, assertive exploration of their music, or be the long awaited affirmation of their combined talent that it is, without the years spent realising their own individual musical ambitions. Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer have recognised the precarious unpredictability of our lives, embraced the fact that opportunities must be seized. Not Dark Yet makes the most of those opportunities in an album that goes much further than anyone could have predicted. Rather than collaborate on self-written material, Moorer and Lynne have come together to share the music that’s been the backdrop to their lives. In sharing with their audience the songs that each has held dear, they bring their music to new levels that an even wider audience can enjoy. Not Dark Yet was well worth the wait.
Not Dark Yet is Out Now. Order via Amazon.
Photo Credit: Jacob Blickenstaff