Since her WTF Grammy win for Best New Artist, Shelby Lynne has really seized the reins over her career arc, chasing her restless creative muse to some unexpected places. Following the sophisticated pop of 2008's understated tribute to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin', Lynne returns to an earthier singer-songwriter approach for Tears, Lies, and Alibis. The album marks a significant entry in Lynne's catalogue as her first self-produced collection, and it's clear that she has acquired considerable studio know-how over the course of her 20-year career.
Lynne's songwriting has often exuded an easygoing, laidback vibe, and that tone carries over to the generally light hand she shows at the soundboard on Tears. Her to-the-point acoustic guitar licks dominate the record and reflect the at-home origins of the songs, but she adds some effective flourishes, such as a clarinet on opener "Rains Came" and Hammond organ courtesy of Spooner Oldham on "Why Didn't You Call Me," to give the album a sense of depth. Her production instincts are spot-on, never overindulging in the freedom afforded by her role as the producer.
Unfortunately, Lynne's songwriting isn't as sharp here as it has been on records like Suit Yourself and Identity Crisis. "Call" is one of the standouts and wouldn't have been out of place on her Dusty Springfield album. "Family Tree" surprises for its vitriol, but nearly four straight minutes of rhyming couplets like "I'm sick and tired of throwing stones/'Cause all that leaves is broken bones" quickly becomes tiresome. The premise of "Loser Dreamer," about relationships that never quite get off the ground, is more interesting than its actual execution, with a hook that Lynne attempts to shoehorn into the song's meter. She extols the virtues of life in an Airstream trailer on "Something to Be Said," but Miranda Lambert covered that territory better on "Airstream Song." Ultimately, most of these songs are adequate and work well enough together, but they lack Lynne's usual wit and spark.
Her voice, however, is as flawless as ever. It's easy to miss some of the devastating, powerful performances she gave in the early part of her career in Nashville, but mellow songs like "Loser" and "Alibi" highlight Lynne's incomparable control and tone. With her vocal tracks foregrounded in the mixes, it's clear that Lynne knows what her primary selling point is. Even if Tears doesn't give her as many opportunities to sing material worthy of that remarkable voice, the album makes it clear that she knows how to play to her strengths, and that bodes well for wherever it is that she goes next.