Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer
“Not Dark Yet”
(Thirty Tigers Records)
What if Don and Phil Everly hadn’t gotten around to making their first joint album until a couple of decades into their solo careers? That’s the kind of hypothetical that comes to mind as you listen to the first full-length collaboration between sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, who’ve had estimable enough paths on their own that you can’t cry too much about fate averted. As long awaited, first-time public family reunions go, better mid-life than never.
These Americana queens have sung about each other probably more than they’ve sung with each other, most memorably when Lynne released “Miss You Sissy,” a song addressing an apparent estrangement in the ‘90s, back at the turn of the century. They clearly reconciled and grew much closer in the intervening years, to the point where you’d have to imagine that this duet project’s tender and supportive opening track, “My List,” is about their relationship, and maybe not the romantic one that Brandon Flowers and the Killers were probably thinking of when they wrote the song.
That Killers cover is not an outlier here; though both sisters are more than proven songwriters, “Not Dark Yet” is an all-covers album, save for a closing number penned by Lynne. Maybe simply recording together (let alone writing) was enough of a learning curve here — or maybe they both wanted the right side-project excuse to delve into an influences record — but they do know how to pick an interesting mix of songs to cover, however they arrived there. The selection of material strikes just the right balance between some of the Americana heroes you’d expect — Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Jason Isbell and the mother of all sibling duos, the Louvin Brothers — and some less usual suspects, like Kurt Cobain.
Their version of “Lithium” certainly stands out in this company, and it’ll probably be a lot of listeners’ favorite or least favorite song from the collection. It’s the one time they really de-beautify their voices, sounding more like bratty little sisters than the elder stateswomen they just about count as nowadays. They don’t steer too far toward Seattle from Alabama, in any case, as the arrangement is just as stripped-down rootsy as the rest of the record, with producer Teddy Thompson and guest musicians like Heartbreaker Benmont Tench working in a mostly acoustic style where everything sounds like it was captured on the first take, even if it might have been the fifth or sixth.
“Lithium” isn’t the only track that gets transformed from rock to roots: The aforementioned Killers song sounds more like a faithful cover of some forgotten tune by Robbie Robertson and the Band than something out of Las Vegas. Of course, when they get to Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” the lift is already built in. There’s plenty of time and space to do an A/B test on the sisters’ voices, which is a lot easier with them in this proximity than it was taking Lynne’s and Moorer’s solo albums in and out of the player. Lynne’s voice has traditionally been a little more magnificently flighty around the edges, and Moorer’s ever so slightly lower and maybe more pure in its alto. But you ultimately spend a lot less time thinking about their respective uniqueness in “Not Dark Yet” than how bloodlines parallel and converge.
In the end, it’s about the emotion. As much fun as that Nirvana cover is, there are two tracks here that are emotional killers (and one of them isn’t the Killers cover). One is the title track, a Bob Dylan number from, yes, his darkest album, 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” These are both women who do dark, so they were born to sing this song maybe even more than they were born to sing with each other. The ballad, one of Dylan’s most powerful, has always existed in that tension of: is it a deeply depressing song, because succumbing is inevitable, or a slightly hopeful one, because giving in to melancholia and mortality has been forestalled a bit longer? As Moorer and Lynne both soar, their majestically synched sadness manages to make keeping an eye on life’s dimmer switch sound positively heroic.
That’s hard to beat as a piece of writing, but Lynne comes close enough with the composition she adds to close out all the covers, “Is It Too Much,” which leans toward the noir-ish side of her catalogue. Its minor key sounds sad enough, too, but it’s really an inherently hopeful bookend to that Killers song that opens the album, again promising a wellspring of sisterly support through tough times. Either Lynne or Moorer, in isolation, can feel like the sister you never had. In such lovely tandem, they really make you want to find a way to adopt in.