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Pop Music Review

Lots of Sizzle, Not Much Heat

On her first tour as a country queen, Shania Twain showed the doubters that she could command the stage, if not all the feeling in her songs.

June 23, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

For better and for worse, Shania Twain is just as advertised.

At the Arrowhead Pond on Sunday, she proved to be exactly what we've seen and heard in her hit albums and glamorous video clips.

Because the 32-year-old Canadian didn't tour after the blockbuster success of her 1995 album, "The Woman in Me," it was easy for skeptics in country music to suspect that Twain was a recording studio creation--someone who only sounded good on record and who only looked great in the safety of a video director's hands.

But she disproved those conspiracy theories with such ease Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond that it was only fitting that she was carried around the arena floor like a triumphant gladiator near the end of the two-hour set.

Appearing both confident and comfortable during this early stop on her first North American tour since stardom arrived, Twain showed she could handle all the notes with ease and that the beauty in the videos wasn't just built around careful camera angles.

She didn't break any guitars or swing from ropes, but Twain moved about the stage with the energy and apparent ambition of Garth Brooks.

In short, Twain is a consummate pro--and the more than 13,000 fans cheered her with the same enthusiasm that has led fans to buy more than 15 million of her albums.

And, for worse?

Professionalism isn't the same as compelling artistry, and there was little Sunday to suggest that, in her case, the twain shall ever meet.

Despite a few appealing numbers, notably the lively, spit-fire "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under," there always has been a disturbingly anonymous tone to her albums.

With the best singers, regardless of gender or genre, you get some inkling of personality or attitude in an album. In country music, the top female artists have had a particularly strong sense of individuality--from Patsy Cline to Emmylou Harris.

On both "The Woman in Me" and the new "Come On Over," Twain lacks this identity. The vocals tend to be competent rather than distinctive, and the songs suffer from too much country-pop convention.

Like Brooks, she tries to modernize country by adding touches of pop and rock. But she doesn't do it nearly as well. Brooks is an uneven artist, but you never lose track of who he is. With Twain, you never really feel in touch with her. The songs--which she co-writes with husband Robert John "Mutt" Lange, a pop-rock producer whose credits include the equally anonymous Bryan Adams--are a patchwork of familiar pop-country-rock elements.

Twain attempted to personalize things in a few places Sunday. After telling about her own tough-times childhood, she urged the audience to donate to a local food bank. She also brought an Orange County teenager on stage to sing a song, recalling how bands in Canada gave her a similar chance years ago.

But, musically, there was little that was revealing.

Twain alternated between lively workouts and ballads, but her emotional range felt about as narrow as her wardrobe choice, which went all the way from tight black leather pants in the opening half of the concert to shiny tight black leather pants in the second.

To compound matters Sunday, there was a slick, often sterile synthesizer feel to the arrangements, neutralizing the potentially colorful country elements (including steel guitar and fiddles) in her nine-piece band.

*

Some see Twain as the liberating voice of the modern woman in country music, someone who can stand up to her man and who is comfortable in her sexuality. But the approach is a breakthrough only if you measure it against the conservative country music stereotype of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man."

Loretta Lynn served notice to men three decades ago in such songs as "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)." And Tanya Tucker wore equally tight black leather pants in the '70s.

What we're left with is someone who, like so many artists in the '90s, has tapped into the commercial momentum of country music but done little to enrich it.

For all Twain's showmanship and allure, the musical heart of the evening was the opening act. Leahy is an eight-member brother and sister team from Canada whose fiddle-driven instrumental music is augmented by keyboards, percussion and step-dancing.

Its approach seems so gloriously free of the commercial pollution of so much American pop that it felt like a tonic for the spirit Sunday.

Though limited as opening act to 30 minutes, this is an act whose music is invigorating enough to deserve an entire evening's presentation, which is what Leahy will get when it headlines today at the El Rey in Los Angeles.

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