'Blue' it

If she isn't careful, LeAnn Rimes could fade away before she's old enough to vote

Granted, it all seemed more than a little creepy even from the beginning: You couldn't help but wince when she wondered why, on her 1996 Curb Records debut Blue, her lover had "hurt me," and it seemed strange and inappropriate for a 13-year-old girl to be in such desperate need of a "Good Lookin' Man." Something about the whole country-fried Lolita getup smacked of prepackaged prepubescent fantasy for the adult trade, and it felt all the more weird that her daddy Wilbur, who had sold seismic equipment to oil companies in Mississippi before striking it rich with his own kid, was pulling the strings.

LeAnn was (is!) the Traci Lords of country music, a teen girl who looked and acted twice her age and sold grown-up fantasies at 15 bucks a pop; the spread-eagle, pouting photos that adorn the Sittin' CD sleeve--and look to have been taken by a boudoir photographer who just quit his day job at the Kmart--only drive home the, ah, point. At least Tanya Tucker, who sang of sex and insanity at such a similarly young age--she was 13 when she recorded "Delta Dawn," 15 when she made "Will You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)"--didn't hide the sexuality behind a mask of innocence. She reveled in the teenage titillation, carousing and burning out well before she hit 20. But Rimes, for her part, is desperate to catch up, telling interviewers that she can't date boys her own age anymore. "The people I go out with are 19 and up because they are the ones I can relate to," she recently told the Los Angeles Times. Too bad Glen Campbell's married.

Rimes, too young to have found her own voice yet, seems to think she can make a career borrowing the soul of others; but the princess is no Prince. Still, "Purple Rain" is par for the 15-hole golf course that is Sittin'; at least it's the only song on the album that isn't generic. Sittin' is modern-day Nashville's idea of a country album, a glossy pop record with the occasional steel guitar and fiddle thrown in for good measure. It begins with a song that sounds lifted from one of Cher's solo records, and follows with a Carole Bayer Sager-David Foster throwaway written for a cartoon movie. Four songs into it is one more hackneyed gem from Diane Warren, a woman who figured out long ago you can never go broke underestimating the American public, and has since made a nice career for herself rewriting her first hit, 1983's "Solitaire" (recorded by Laura Branigan), over and over again.

Warren, who also wrote the Grammy-winning, chart-topping "How Do I Live" on Rimes' You Light Up My Life, and Curb house writer Deborah Allen, who has three contributions here, are soulless creatures that could only make their livings in the music business. They embrace banality and celebrate formula, and as a result, their songs are like suburban tract homes. Long gone are the days when Goffin-King and Bacharach-David were house writers who could build you a mansion in three minutes; no one much goes in for original anymore, not when audiences are stupid enough to pay hand over fist for something they already bought three times before.

Hell, it's probably all Wilbur's fault anyway, since he "produces" his daughter's record straight into the ground. The man's about as restrained as a gorilla on crank, burying every song beneath so many instruments it's astonishing you can even hear LeAnn over all the sickly sweet racket. He doesn't understand that the best country music is all about the silences between the fiddles and pedal steel, that the best music is as much about the audience as the performer. Wilbur doesn't seem to understand the concept of subtlety; everything this man touches turns into Kim Carnes. LeAnn should either hole him up in the studio with some Jimmy Bowen and Billy Sherrill records or tell the Earl Woods of country to stay the hell out of her studio.

Rimes may well become Patsy Cline in the end: Cline, for all her myth, was chief among those who turned country into pop; her arrangements were covered in so much syrup and cornpone, and so often her material was trite and transparent. It wasn't for nothing she released an album titled Sentimentally Yours in 1962. Only Cline's voice, so sorrowful and bottomless, rescued a good chunk of her recordings, which producer Owen Bradley insisted on burying beneath opulent string arrangements and backup singers who insisted on stepping to the front. Indeed, Cline was far better on stage, anyway, where she performed without the studio's safety net; her live recordings exude far more soul, far more candor, far more poignancy than any hit single she ever released--they're almost dangerous, the sound of a woman, literally, falling to pieces.

Rimes has long insisted she doesn't need to "live" the songs she sings; she refers to herself as an actress reading a script, playing a role, inhabiting characters. It's a weak copout, the arrogant presumption of a girl with more ability than smarts, a singer who takes the most ham-fisted material and then beats it further into submission. She might well read the words just fine, but she doesn't seem to understand a single one of them.

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