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Twin Engines

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Must stars be born, or can they be made?

If nurture plays a role along with nature, then the Kinleys could be major stars in the making.

The duo of countrified twin sisters from Philadelphia was good for a fun, entertaining, alternately winsome and rambunctious time in its early set Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana.

Still, the 70-minute performance was less a fully cooked delicacy to be savored than a tasty but preliminary slurp from a pot that needs stirring and simmering.

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Nominally a country act, but as grounded in R&B; and folk-pop, Heather and Jennifer Kinley generated the sort of accomplished but earthy harmony sound that’s like catnip to the human ear. They can write songs as well as sing (the sisters have writing credits on half the songs on their debut album, “Just Between You and Me”), and what they sing is drawn from life, rather than cleverly concocted to fit a niche on a radio playlist.

The Kinleys benefited from an excellent, brawny but tempered five-man backing band, and the sisters made sure to play with and off the musicians, rather than reducing them to faceless functionaries.

Heather is the stellar talent who isn’t yet a star. Her voice has the tawny hues and flexibility of Bonnie Raitt, and like Raitt she registered sweetness or grit as a song demanded. Jennifer’s prominent close-harmony parts complemented her sister’s lead the way a platinum band complements a diamond.

Yet Heather clearly is not a natural performer. She appeared stiff and reticent, although she eventually loosened up to the point where she was clearly enjoying herself and the music, shaking a black-velveted leg along with her more animated twin.

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Exceptional talents can produce fine music and send it out for an audience to enjoy. Major stars possess the alchemy to send themselves out along with the song, their voices and personalities inseparable parts of an invisible presence that seizes, envelops and holds.

Turning a knack for the right notes and feelings into the power to enthrall with personality is a matter of inner alchemy, not anything that can be produced in a step-by-step procedure. No one can teach Heather how to shine brighter; star power will spontaneously combust in her as experience and confidence grow, or she will remain what she is, an impressive talent who sings a nice song but doesn’t become it.

Confidence-builders aren’t in short supply for the Kinleys. The first two songs pitched to radio hit the Top 10, and the Academy of Country Music last week named the Kinleys the best new group or duo of 1997. Their babes-in-toyland hobnobbing with Garth Brooks and other royalty gave them some stories to tell; Jennifer, breezy and unaffected, if not an accomplished raconteur, did most of the talking.

After some attractive but restrained preliminaries (Heather’s reticence had its cost), the Kinleys loosened up during “When Will I Be Loved,” the second half of a tribute to key inspirations the Everly Brothers that began with an ordinary “Bye, Bye Love.” Guitarists Mark Matejka and Smith Curry helped rev things up with Link Wray-like tough-guy guitar riffing.

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The next number, “Love Is Strange,” was another chestnut from a ‘50s duo (originally a hit for Mickey and Sylvia), and the Kinleys and crew pogo-hopped through most of it. Far from being an empty gimmick to simulate energy and fun, the goofy exercise generated good spirits that prevailed during the rest of the show.

After a nice folk-pop morsel, “You Make It Seem So Easy,” that could fit Shawn Colvin or Jewel (assuming they were willing to shed characteristic melancholy for simple enthusiasm over a happy love), Heather’s Raitt-like sass came forward on a series of funky, swampy songs that melded pop and Southern R&B.;

The Kinleys’ new single, “Dance in the Boat,” was a juicy rocker, an unrepentant party girl’s hearty boast; the band bolstered it with driving riffs that called to mind Aerosmith without getting in the singers’ way.

The Kinleys ended with their album’s two ballads. “Contradictions,” a snapshot of the hardest choices parents have to make, was especially strong, although a more stark acoustic arrangement, uncluttered by synthesized strings, would have been more effective.

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With their mixture of accessible styles, the Kinleys had something to please almost any listener along the folk-pop-country-roots-rock spectrum. Add a touch of star power, and almost everyone may get to know who they are.


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