Man! I Feel Like a Woman!

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

That horrid Rimes child is up to her evil ways yet again. Casting her elfin magic on unsuspecting grownups with the might of a thousand Olson twins, LeAnn has commandeered the "sentimental" half of the number-one country album in the nation, the Coyote Ugly soundtrack. (The "smutty" half of that disc is reserved for "dirty" rock numbers like EMF's "Unbelievable" and Don Henley's "All She Wants to Do Is Dance.") "Can't fight the moonlight," trills the erstwhile Star Searcher, her will-to-power wail ideal for those who find Celine Dion too intense (or maybe just too Canadian). Granted, Rimes shows signs of trying to wriggle out of the straitjacket of adult adulation. But not. Just. Yet. All growed up yet permanently presexual, eternally lovelorn yet curiously self-possessed, the don't-ask-don't-tell virgin Rimes is, for now, the ideal mascot for Nashville 2K.

Not so long ago, Music Row seemed belatedly (if reluctantly) prepared to allow its female stars to grow into an expressive sexuality. Lyrical constraints may have limited Shania's kink to boasting that she was going to wear a man's shirt with her short skirt. But her footloose prance promised an evening of naughty premarital entertainment regardless. But now the buff and buxom prefab teases who inhabit TNN have spun a "wholesome" lie that's all come-on and no cum. Faith Hill is as titillating as a toothpaste commercial, a sex symbol with an overemphasis on the "symbol." Listen to Faith and her wooden cigar-store hunk of a hunk, Tim McGraw, join in on "Let's Make Love," the euphemistic coo of a couple who've never fucked with the bedroom lights on--they're the Steve and Eydie of today's country. And a mass of listeners who can't discern between country pop that sounds like Def Leppard (yay!) and country slop that sounds like Night Ranger (boo!) chills beneath the industry's cold shower.

"What did you expect?" rejoins a chorus of proud underground exiles, burnt out on mainstream country's conservatism from way back. Granted, given alternatives ranging from Chicago's raucous Bloodshot Records to countless confessional neo-folkies scattered across our fruited plains, anyone whose notion of country stops at Nashville city limits is much deluded. But what sort of women's voices does this alternative offer? There are plenty of opportunities for any woman with a smidgen of individuality and decent pipes to come across as her own woman. But with such an expanse of freedom comes a whole other set of pitfalls--the proclivity to present a cosmetic independence while breeding the same tired gender tropes underneath. After all, there's a slippery slope downhill from Lucinda Williams's marginally overrated anthem of practical demands "Passionate Kisses" to Kelly Willis's severely overrated foot stamp of spoiled entitlement, "What I Deserve."

And then there's Shelby Lynne.

I Am Shelby Lynne must be the most unconsciously ironic album title since Janet Jackson's Control--a declaration of independence tightly orchestrated by a pair of producers. Maybe you know Lynne's mythic backstory: After a disappointing string of overproduced drawl-by-the-numbers records, the hard-drinkin' gal splits Nashville to write her own songs. In the process, she learns to express herself, grow artistically, and win all the rewards promised at the end of an episode of Behind the Music. And yet, from the recorded evidence here, I don't believe Lynne is really her own woman any more than I believe Jennifer Lopez can really infiltrate the imagination of a serial killer.

But like The Cell, you dig Shelby Lynne for the special effects rather than the plot. The means of production are controlled here by Bill Bottrell, one of Sheryl Crow's former studio consorts. The opening track, "Your Lies," is as thrilling an introduction as you could ask for. The drums act more as a sound effect than an ordinary groove; it's the sort of punctuation that session pro Hal Blaine used to pound out on Phil Spector productions. Then, an obsessive three-note guitar figure repeats, next sprawling out unexpectedly across Lynne's verses. Eventually she goes out on an a cappella coda, harmonizing with herself like an infinite choir of Sweet Inspirations.

None of this, I should quickly add, sounds remotely like anything on Dusty in Memphis, no matter what you may have read. A capable stylist, Lynne possesses two vocal speeds: one a full-force gale, the other a husky breeze of a drawl. Dusty Springfield was an entire weather pattern unto herself, a series of breathy gusts caught in her own cross current. (Besides, Lynne is steeped in her native Alabama. Even when famously diddling with the preacher man's boy, Dusty sounded as down-home as Emily Brontë). But most important, when faced with brassy, overwhelming arrangements, Dusty submitted. Consequently, she discovered that epic surrender could be a means of empowerment.

Lynne neither yields to nor chafes against Bottrell's aural illusion. Instead, she remains just another great sound effect on an album crammed full of great sound effects, ranging from the lazy drawl of the horns on "Why Can't You Be?" to the studio orchestra of "Where I'm Free," a Francophone reverie that recalls Randy Newman at his most cinematically nostalgic (minus the tempering irony). At the same time, her integration into the mix never points out the seams and problems of the producer-diva dynamic the way that Springfield did so eloquently. And so Lynne herself remains a cipher, a girl dressing up in her grandma's clothes squinting into the mirror and imagining herself enveloped in an authentic sepia tone that could transport her back to a simpler time, when life was harder.

 

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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