Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

The Kinleys and Shelby Lynne offer womanly alternatives to Nashville's bombast of latter-day chastity

 

Back here on Earth, present-day, of course, women are in about as dire need of another Dusty Springfield as they are of a more humanely fitted corset. Within the unraveling gender constraints of the Sixties, such vaunting of private passion may have seemed liberating. But by the Seventies such tears would be a primary stream feeding into the rampant romanticism that would drown female balladry of all genres, most definitely including country. You don't need either the steadiest of hands or the keenest of eyes, after all, to draw a straight line from Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life" to--well, to LeAnn Rimes's "You Light Up My Life." Anyone with two healthy lungs can be melodramatic. The question now is, Who possesses the courage to be ordinary?

I don't mean defiantly ordinary, or anti-hip, or deliberately out of step, or irresolutely slobbish. And I certainly don't mean an icon of the ordinary, inflated to heroic scale by projected desires--archetypes of the humble and rural like Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. Just, y'know, ordinary, reflecting the most mundane concerns of the day at the same scale we experience them.

Blonde, shapely, and identical enough that they feel no need to flaunt their genetically endowed glamour, twin sisters Jennifer and Heather Kinley are ideally suited to the endeavor of reclaiming the workaday. Granted, if they bound their feet in stilettos and rolled about in the fields all smutty-like, they'd be as hated by women audiences as they probably were by the other girls in their high school (fair hair is far less of a given in Pennsylvania, where the Kinleys were nurtured, than in our Nordic clime, you know). Instead, they've cultivated the rather large space between happily-ever-after and despondent heartbreak, offering up scenarios generalized enough to pass for art, yet nuanced enough to suggest life.

If the title of the Kinleys' debut, Just Between You and Me, promised a casual mix of candor and reserve, its not quite cunningly titled followup, II, makes good on that promise. Of the 13 songs here, 12 are addressed to men, 11 of whom neither sister is currently sharing a bed with, 10 of whom (at least) one of the sisters would (at least) like to negotiate sleeping arrangements with. (The 13th is addressed to God--the unfortunate but hardly unlistenable "Somebody's Out There Watching," which has a way of stirring up my latent paranoia.)

And negotiation is certainly what the Kinleys are engaged in as they attempt to set quasi-feminist ground rules for relationships to replace the old Nashvillian ones. "Love doesn't come with a contract," they muse on "I'm In," a courtship tune that tries to figure out the best way to make a move without leaving your psyche overexposed. Their claim "If I knew what I was doing/I'd be doing it right now," voiced in a shared lead of warm altos that occasionally suggests a less schoolmarmy Anne Murray, never hints at the hot-to-trot man-hooking endemic to country's more coy mistresses (the ones who play by The Rules). Free of bombast and neurosis alike, this is an unusually candid snapshot of what it sounds like to be both adult--the Kinleys turned thirty this year--and still looking for love.

But II is most remarkable for the ease with which the Kinleys combine this lack of romantic stability with an equal absence of any real danger. In the most action-packed song here, "Lovers," a jilted woman keys a car, decks the other woman, and makes up in his back seat in under three minutes, while leaving room for a pair of fiddle and pedal-steel interludes that race upward with Van Halen-styled pyrotechnique--and it's all played for laughs. Even the most obsessive number, "You're Still Here," is cooled by a cocktail piano that's "soulful" in a Billy Joel sort of way. Indeed, throughout this record, the sisters' studio aides have adapted to a rhythm that suits their relaxed, loose-fitting sexuality.

For those of us who aren't immersed in the star-making foofaraw and unshucked corn of the genre, the chief attraction of mainstream country music is its occasional ability to snatch truth from the maw of banality. II is an example not of personality bursting through craft, but personality revealing itself through the discipline of craft. From the far-from-self-aggrandizing "She Ain't the Girl for You" to the far-from-self-abnegating "I'm Me With You," none of these songs will cast any great light into the workings of the human soul. But as always, it's not what you say but how you say it--yet another cliché that doesn't glimmer until you take a shine to it.

 

The Kinleys perform Thursday, September 7, at Jackpot Junction Casino Hotel in Morton; (800) 946-2274.

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