By Jackie Morris

Britta Lee Shain - What the Heart WantsBritta Lee Shain’s second CD, What the Heart Wants, should come with a warning label: “This album may be addictive.” In truth, I cannot stop listening to it. Shain’s unique brand of cool, bluesy folk-rock is more than “that good.” It is compelling.

The album was released in tandem with the publication of Shain’s new book, Seeing The Real You At Last: Life and Love on the Road with Bob Dylan, a personal memoir chronicling her time with the folk icon in the 1980s. (One of the songs is a co-write with him, another is a cover of one of his latter-day (1997) hits, and still another … or others … are about him.) But regardless of this intriguing liaison, I have to emphasize that these songs stand on their own. And then some.

Shain has been a professional writer most of her life, and her art as a songwriter reflects this. She understands drama. She understands tight lyrics and vivid imagery. She understands the power of the unexpected in humor, and the power of understatement in evoking emotion. And her well-chosen words are paired with memorable melodies … brilliant instrumentation … and, last but not least, her distinctive delivery.

Accurately described as “a female Tom Waits,” Shain’s voice is gritty and intense … at once tough and tender … cool and edgy, yet strangely vulnerable. The result is all the more moving when it catches for a second and we glimpse the underlying pain and passion.

What the Heart Wants was produced by renowned songwriter/guitarist Edward Tree (Spencer Davis, Rita Coolidge), who is also responsible for much of the brilliant instrumentation alluded to above, and who co-wrote the title track with Shain. Tree plays all manner of guitars on these 13 tracks – from acoustic and nylon string to a ’66 Telecaster and ’63 Stratocaster; from slide guitar to tremolo baritone guitar. In addition, he provides bass on every track.

Other virtuoso performances are provided by Gabe Witcher on fiddle; Marty Axelrod on Hammond organ, synth pad, and Wurlitzer electric piano; Gary Fergusson on drums (Jorgen Ingmar on one track); Teresa James on harmony vocals; Phil Parlapiano on accordion; and Debra Dobkin on percussion.

Britta Lee ShainFrom the outset, this album has a cool groove. It opens with the title track, with a breath-takingly beautiful violin intro by Gabe Witcher. This perfect, poignant melody provides a dramatic backdrop to Shain’s vocals, husky with emotion, when she tells it like it is:

The odds are stacked against you

You think you could never win

Innocence and cynicism

Are your closest friends

But they cannot protect you

When true love comes your way

Another non-believer falls

To his knees today

On a lighter but no less enjoyable note, the second track is a big, bluesy, good-time rocker called Trouble in a Bottle. With Tree on a ’66 Telecaster and bass, Parlapiano on accordion (mimicking the sound of a honky-tonk keyboard), and Fergusson on no-nonsense drums, the mood puts you right there in the bar; and when Shain describes this embodiment of “trouble,” you can virtually see her:

Dancin’ at the jukebox

Lookin’ so proud

Knowin’ all the right words

But singin’ too loud

Whiskey voice

Lips like a model

That there is trouble in a bottle.

The mood takes a more heartfelt turn in Across the Blue Divide, a lament for the loss of a loved one. It is yet another lingering melody with killer lyrics like:

The years fly by like weekends

The hours spill like wine

Tomorrow’s just another day

And that’s when I’ll have time

But time is just an illusion

It can never be replaced

Truth an intrusion

That sometimes must be faced.

Seeing the real you at lastThere’s a refreshing variety of rhythm and style between all the songs on this album, but every track is a good one. There’s the co-write with Dylan – You Can Blow My Mind (If You Want To) – evoking that “drawn-out-in-time” stoned experience with the help of Tree’s “groovy” slide guitar and lots of bass … there’s a moving rendition of Dylan’s ballad, Make You Feel My Love, featuring another gorgeous fiddle solo by Witcher … and the song about Dylan, Too Much Fame, with a haunting cadence reminiscent of some of Dylan’s early work – a swaggering sadness achieved by the interplay of Marty Axelrod’s Hammond organ and Witcher’s mournful fiddle. There’s a seductive number with a Latin vibe called Tequila Nights, accented by Phil Parlapiano’s accordion and Debra Dobkin’s percussion … and a fast-paced political song, Boomer’s Bones, written by William Valenti, celebrating the children of the sixties … and still, five more originals I haven’t even mentioned.

I have not yet read Britta Lee Shain’s book, Seeing the Real You at Last, but I certainly plan to. In the meantime, I heartily suggest that you discover this talented artist for yourself.

A New York transplant to the tiny town of Carpinteria, CA, Jackie is a freelance writer and  singer-songwriter whose music can be heard on Pandora. Her third album of original Folk/Americana songs was among Top Folk Albums of 2011 on the Folk Music Radio Airplay Charts, and her new newly-released fourth album, Can't Fix Crazy, is among Top Folk Albums of May 2014 as well as Top 100 albums of 2014 on the RMR Americana Country Charts. Jackie is also an active member in such acoustic music communities as SummerSongs, SongMakers, and FARWest Folk Alliance.