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Pop Music Review : Martina McBride Turns Out to Be a Paper Tiger


ANAHEIM — If a talent scout walked into a record company with a tip sheet on Martina McBride, the execs would be nuts not to want to land her immediately.

"Powerhouse voice. . . good ear for catchy new songs and country classics . . . willing to try out new material . . . relentlessly cheery stage manner . . . fashion-model beauty."

But (remember New Coke?) every sure thing on paper doesn't always play out in real life.

McBride did seem to have everything in her corner Monday night at the Cowboy Boogie Co. Yet her 70-minute set was as routine as commuter's daily drive. She gamely included half the numbers from her forthcoming album, "Wild Angels," but the new material is cut from the same lightweight fabric as the songs from her previous two collections.

Her covers, meanwhile, were impeccable choices but obvious ones: Willie Nelson's "Crazy," Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine" were among them. For a singer to make an impression with such country standards, he or she has to brand them with his or her own personality. McBride didn't. Perhaps she couldn't.


Her reading of "Crazy" followed Patsy Cline's definitive recording almost to the end, when she departed briefly from the blueprint and stretched out a few words. Her version of Phil Everly's "When Will I Be Loved" mirrored Linda Ronstadt's rocked-up take from '75 right down to the note-for-note guitar solo.

McBride had an excellent seven-man band in tow. Too bad these obviously talented players were used predominantly to recreate precisely what had been created years ago in a studio, instead of being allowed to explore the musical moment.

The most telling--and disappointing--cover was "Your Cheatin' Heart." A masterpiece of heartache was turned into just another bouncy two-step. A noble stab, perhaps, at rearranging Williams' classic version, but for all the pain she projected, McBride might as well have been exhorting her listeners to try a new brand of mouthwash.

She just didn't connect with the feelings her songs intend to convey. And with connection missing from that aforementioned scouting report, all her other qualities are just so much window dressing.

That's a shame, because there were times when she seemed on the cusp of breaking through the meticulously crafted veneer. "Where I Used to Have a Heart" is a blues-tinged lament that can bring Bonnie Raitt to mind. Had McBride dropped the full-band arrangement of the record and ventured it unplugged-style with just an acoustic guitar behind her, she might have tapped the potential for naked confession in its tale of someone bloodied and then numbed in love's battles.

She has one song with sure-fire emotional impact: Her anthem "Independence Day," which has taken two video-of-the-year awards and is a nominee for song of the year from the Country Music Assn.

It came at the end of the pre-encore portion of the show, and McBride treated it as a Rocky-like dance after a big win in the ring. "It's a song about freedom!," she announced. She then sang of a woman who exacts Dirty Harriet-like vengeance on an abusive mate.

There are, of course, a number of sticky moral issues that might arise during such a tale in which a battered spouse torches her house--and her mate along with it. But this song by Gretchen Peters--with its chiming, sing-along chorus of "let freedom ring . . . let the guilty pay"--defies listeners to consider anything, inviting them instead to just join the victory celebration.

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