The first time I saw Lera Lynn I was impressed — really impressed.
It was 2016, I was at a music festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and I was parked at the venue with the most country music on the bill. It was a fine lineup, too, and my primary goal was to hear Sarah Shook’s set. Shook was on fire (of course) and she was followed by Lynn, whose oblique approach to Nashville country caught my attention immediately. Her band was really strong, for one: She had assembled a squad of tight musicians who were technical enough to navigate her songs’ sinuous turns and whose rich, midrange-heavy tones established a proper twilit atmosphere. As for Lynn, her tunes that evening owed as much to heavy-lidded space-rock and psychedelia as to country music: think the Black Angels meets Brightblack Morning Light, but with insistent grooves. It was a fine blurring of styles and I got really into her record Resistor not long afterward.
On the new Plays Well With Others, Lera Lynn once again cuts her own path. Unlike many duets and guest star-oriented records, many of the songs on Plays Well With Others are originals, co-written for this collection and then tracked live. There’s a wide sonic and emotional range, too, making this half-hour duets record an engaging album on its own right rather than simply an asterisk in Lynn’s discography.
The most memorable songs hearken to earlier musical eras. Lynn and John Paul White’s (previously of The Civil Wars) cover of “Almost Persuaded” strips the David Houston song down its Opry-esque core, giving it the straightforward swing of a 1950s honky-tonk radio staple. Appropriately, Nicole Atkins duet “In Another Life” captures the crestfallen romance of early rock ballads. A straightforward, poignant hook of “In another life/you’re mine” rides a progression that would have been right at home at another spot of the 1950s radio dial. “In Another Life” is perfect in its simplicity in the same manner as Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways.”
Lynn also explores the twilit soundscapes that made Resistor such an intriguing listen. For one, Plays Well With Others opens gradually with haunted atmospheric swells courtesy of a bowed double bass, leading into her Peter Bradley Adams duet “Same Old Song,” while the Andrew Combs duet “Breakdown” moves with a familiar up-tempo sinuous grace. And on Lynn and Shovels and Rope’s cover of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me,” they transform the driving, twistedly danceable indie-pop number into a shambling Old Weird America tale. When the three sing “we could jet in a stolen car/but we wouldn’t get too far/before the transformation takes/and the bloodlust tanks/and the crave gets slaked/my mind has changed/my body’s frame/but god, I like it” over patient folk-rock, it alters the listener’s perception of the song’s metaphorical werewolf. Rather than bounding feverishly through a neon landscape in search of warm flesh as the wolf does in the TV on the Radio original, Lynn and Shovels and Rope’s werewolf is a patient, calculating beast — and it’s almost more frightening for it.
And sometimes Lynn just feels like having fun, such as when she and JD McPherson gleefully howl “I don’t want nothin’ to do with your love.” On Plays Well With Others, Lynn and her collaborators are obviously enjoying themselves immensely. Fortunately for the rest of us, they brought some excellent new songs into the world in the process.