Finding your voice, as an artist, is a multi-faceted endeavor. There’s the style of singing that, albeit weighted with inherent gifts, still demands work on technique and timbre to be really great. Then there’s the craft of songwriting which requires even more effort to hone. Figuring out what to say and how to say it, both lyrically and musically… well, most spend a lifetime chasing that muse and perfecting that talent.
With 2013’s The Avenues, Lera Lynn roamed around the grittier edges of Americana, tempering the occasional snarling guitar with her beautifully gauzy voice. On the 2016 follow-up, Resistor, she explored the somewhat pop-punk elements of rock & roll. Both efforts were solid, for sure, perhaps helping her find what fits by discovering what doesn’t.
For her new release, Plays Well with Others, Lynn takes an entirely different musical tack — writing and recording a set of duets featuring Rodney Crowell, John Paul White, Andrew Combs, Dylan LeBlanc, Nicole Atkins, Shovels & Rope, JD McPherson and Peter Bradley Adams. It’s a fascinating case study, when viewed through the lens of an artist searching for their sound, as each song more closely reflects the collaborator’s style than Lynn’s. And, yet, she never gets lost in the mix. It still feels like a Lera Lynn record… just one unlike we’ve ever heard before.
Plays Well really does play well, as Lynn steps up and leans back to meet her co-makers where they are. She could easily overpower Adams’ understated vocals on “Same Old Song,” but she doesn’t. Instead, she coaxes him to a middle ground — one salted with swelling strings and peppered with a slinky double-bass. Similarly, on the first track featuring White, “Lose Myself,” Lynn uses her voice as a counterpoint to his, each playing off each other is ways both subtle and sensual. Lynn clearly chose her contributors carefully.
While the songs across all of Plays Well are worthy in their own right, the vocal interplay is what makes the whole affair truly captivating. Perhaps where those two factions come most magically together is on “What Is Love,” featuring LeBlanc. Wielding an acoustic guitar-driven ear worm of a melody, the two harmonize so hauntingly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Other highlights include Crowell playing the part of the devil on the sly saunter of “Crimson Underground,” Shovels & Rope pushing and pulling their way through the Southern swagger of “Wolf Like Me,” and Atkins making a left turn into the throwback pop of “In Another Life.”
It is as yet impossible to prove that Plays Well with Others has defined — or even refined — Lera Lynn’s voice in any way. But it is absolute evidence that she can play on pretty much any field with any one, and play very, very well.