'Blue' it

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

For a moment, she seemed like she was country music's underage savior, a teen angel with the voice of a rode-hard, road-weary woman. For a moment--a moment long since forgotten now, though it happened only...when was it?...Lord, just two years ago?--it appeared as though LeAnn Rimes would rescue country music from the pop depths to which it had sunk one more time. No matter that she had done it by channeling the voice of a dead icon or with a song that sounded like a pastiche of Patsy Cline cliches--she was a 13-year-old girl who went to No. 1 by resurrecting history, by imbuing lifeless country radio with a little newfound ancient soul.

But now, two years and three--three!--albums later, all one can do is sit back and marvel at what a profound disappointment LeAnn Rimes turned out to be. The Patsy Cline of the 1990s isn't anything more than Celine Dion/Whitney Houston in high-school drag, another talented singer who performs material so far beneath her she needs scuba equipment and a pick ax just to find it. Turns out country's little princess ain't nothing more than a wanna-be queen of pop, a 15-year-old who refers to herself as a "businesswoman" and greedily eyes the charts without a lick of consideration given to artistry.

Two weeks ago, Curb Records released Rimes' fourth album in just two years, Sittin' on Top of the World, whose title is as appropriate--and arrogant--as a James Cameron Oscars acceptance speech. Indeed, she's not little LeAnn anymore, but a full-blown corporation: LeAnn Rimes Entertainment Inc., with offices on North Central Expressway (also home to the LeAnn Rimes Fan Club). She has, to date, sold more than $150 million worth of albums; captured two Grammys, one for best new artist; "written" a pseudo-autobiographical novel, Holiday in the Heart, as part of a now-voided three-book deal (and she hasn't even graduated home schooling!); starred in the made-for-TV "movie" based on her "book"; and appeared on Days of Our Lives. And word is Sittin' on Top of the World is just the first part of what was to be a double-disc collection, with the second album due to hit stores in September. No wonder she looks as though she's aged 20 years in two.

She's the richest 15-year-old in town (though she and her mother Belinda, divorced last year from papa and manager Wilbur, now spend more time in a new home LeAnn built in Nashville) and the busiest; she'll sleep when she's dead. But Rimes, in such a rush to catch her idols--Barbra Streisand, Wynonna Judd, Celine Dion--has failed to consider what happens when you give the world too much of not enough. She and Wilbur and co-manager Lyle Walker have become so cynical so quickly: They exhibit no restraint, no caution, no care. Theirs is a desirous ideology built not upon young LeAnn's art and what it might become, but the rewards that come with cashing in on what is so often country music's fleeting popularity: Better to sell the garbage now before the public, so generous and unsuspecting, figures out they've been had.

And so Sittin' is one more failure in a line of fiascoes, too much of a bad thing. Like the two records that preceded it--Unchained Melody, which features Rimes' pre-Blue recordings, and You Light Up My Life, a dreadful album of so-called "inspirational songs" that inspires only groaned laughter--Sittin' reveals that the promise of Blue is far from being realized. Indeed, You Light Up My Life was a most wretched affair: Rimes treated Debbie Boone's soft-rock hit as though it meant something, whispering/belting the flaccid words (to a lover? God?) with all the heartache of Helen Reddy. Only the deaf could have made it all the way through the disc, from her mishandling of "The Rose" to the triple threat of "God Bless America," "Amazing Grace," and "National Anthem" that close the disc. Is it unpatriotic to burn this record?

But one need go no further than her ill-considered cover of Prince's "Purple Rain" on Sittin' on Top of the World to find proof that Rimes is doomed to become a victim of her own quick-hit success; she's this far from becoming her own best parody. "Purple Rain" is the biggest laffer yet in a young career already filled with misguided covers, including "Yesterday," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." Hers is the broadest misinterpretation possible of the Prince song, the result of talent colliding head-on with stupid hubris: She performs "Purple Rain" as someone who has never heard Prince at all, merely someone's description of him, and only someone with a voice as good as hers could make the song come out this damned bad.

She rambles the song's intro ("I never meant to cause you any sorrow/I never meant to cause you any pain") like a drunk slurring the words at a karaoke bar, well after last call; it's such a silly, exaggerated performance you can almost see Rimes in the studio, closing her eyes, bending her knees, pursing her lips, convinced she's giving...it...her...everything as she plumbs the depths of her appropriated soul. By the time she says, "I never wanted to be your weekend lover," the moment is too uncomfortable, too ridiculous to take seriously. Drag queens everywhere writhe in envy.

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.

Maybe this is all she has to offer. Maybe hers is just the ignorance of youth. Maybe, like Houston and Dion and even post-1973 Streisand, Rimes couldn't tell a good song from a bad song, just like the audience; maybe she's doomed to burn out before she's old enough to drink or, legally, have sex with one of those 19-year-olds. But it'd be sad to think a career that began with so much promise, even if it belonged to someone else, had turned into so much rubbish. But Sittin' is standin' on top of a pile of trash growing larger every week, it seems. LeAnn would be wise to stay out of the studio for a few years and get off the road, though her management has her playing 100 more shows before the end of the year. It'd be reprehensible if she didn't seem such a willing participant.

Send Street Beat email tips, gripes, and pipe bombs to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com

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