Crow shows critics Review: Edgy, winning 'Sheryl Crow' should silence the moaning over singer's success.

September 24, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

At first glance, Sheryl Crow would hardly seem to rank among pop music's most pitiable. In addition to selling some 3.8 million copies of her first album, "Tuesday Night Music Club," Crow snagged three Grammies, including Record of the Year, for the single "All I Wanna Do," and Best New Artist.

As if that weren't enough, she's also been blessed with the sort of slim figure and unassuming good looks video viewers adore. All told, her situation seems more likely to inspire envy than pity.

Envy, though, can be a powerful motivator, particularly in the music world. Just look at the way that green-eyed monster has colored the anticipation around the singer's second album, "Sheryl Crow" (A&M 31454 0587, arriving in stores today). Some of her critics, complaining that Crow pumped the Tuesday Night collective for hits then dumped them once the album was finished, insist that her success was merely a matter of coattail riding; others carp that she's a hypocrite, shamelessly exploiting her sex appeal while insisting that looks don't count.

Needless to say, both camps can't wait to see the new album flop.

Unfair? You bet it is -- and not just because it places such unrealistic expectations on this second album (anything less than quadruple-platinum sales is guaranteed to leave doubters wearing told-you-so smirks). By putting such emphasis on Crow's looks and private life, these naysayers end up ignoring her musical strengths.

Maybe that's why "Sheryl Crow" finds her acting as if she has something to prove. Although she collaborated with "Tuesday Night Music Club" producer Bill Bottrell in writing a couple of the album's songs, she handled all the production chores herself. Moreover, she did the lion's share of the playing, covering nearly all of the album's keyboard parts as well as a hefty portion of the bass and acoustic guitar work.

It adds up to a markedly different sound than her first album delivered. Not only do the arrangements on "Sheryl Crow" have more bite to them, recalling the raw, raunchy approach of the Rolling Stones more than the polished pop rock of its predecessor, but the singing is tougher, too. From the tart, bluesy sing-song that frames the acerbic wordplay of "A Change," to the throaty purr she assumes for the life-of-a-goodtime-girl number "Oh, Marie," Crow comes across not as a coffeehouse refugee but a hard-boiled rocker with a ton of roadwork under her belt.

Yet for all the edge in her performance, Crow has lost none of her pop sense. If anything, this newfound flintiness seems to have sharpened her melodic instincts, encouraging her to make the most of every note.

That doesn't mean cranking the volume with every chorus, either. "Superstar," in fact, finds her pulling back when she reaches the refrain, using the vocal line almost as a kind of rhythmic punctuation while the hyper-distorted guitar hook handles the melodic content. Likewise, "Love Is a Good Thing" -- which has Wal-Mart in a lather over a lyric about children killing each other with guns "bought at Wal-Mart discount stores" -- lets the astringent blues groove carry most of its weight, as Crow's bent-note vocal lends the tune a piquancy reminiscent of the Staples Singers' best work.

Of course, it isn't all understatement. "Sweet Rosalyn," for example, finds her piling on the vocal harmonies to make the refrain seem louder, while "Everyday Is a Winding Road" makes no bones about capping each verse with a big chorus.

Even then, Crow never quite belts out a line merely for the sake of belting. "If It Makes You Happy" -- which may be the album's best song -- is a great example. What gives the song its power is the way, after powering through the lines "If it makes you happy/It can't be that bad/If it makes you happy" before dropping in intensity for the kicker: "Then why the hell are you so sad?"

Keeping a tight rein on the vocals also allows Crow to make more of the characters each song conjures. With its clipped cadences and "Sweet Jane"-ish guitar chords, it would have been very easy to have made "Hard to Make a Stand" just another survey of life's hard-luck cases. But Crow infuses her singing with such sweetness that it's hard not to feel pity for "Old James Dean Monroe" and his ilk. And though it's tempting to chuckle at the UFO madness sketched in "Maybe Angels," Crow puts enough heart into her singing to make it impossible to laugh at the longing and paranoia its protagonist exhibits.

In some cases, she lets the arrangement do the work. In others, her voice clearly carries the day. Either way, though, the end bTC result is the same -- she sells the song, and does it on her own terms.

No wonder her enemies are so envious.

Have some fun

To hear excerpts from Sheryl Crow's self-titled new release, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6190.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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