Country and pop: Shania’s twain meet
With traces of everything from the Dixie Chicks to ABBA on Shania Twain’s first album in five years, it’s easy to see why people have trouble figuring out whether this auburn-haired mega-seller is a country singer or a pop-rock performer.
Whichever your vote, Twain lets you have it both ways on “UP!,” which goes on sale today.
In an unusual move, the Mercury Records collection contains two discs for the price of one. Both discs have the same vocals, but the green one features country arrangements of 19 new songs and the red disc offers pop arrangements of the same songs.
Recording artists, including Twain, frequently do specialized versions of songs for different radio formats. But it is believed to be unprecedented for an artist of Twain’s sales stature to include an entire disc of alternate versions in a new CD. Her last album, “Come On Over,” has sold more than 14 million copies in the U.S., the biggest seller by any artist in the last decade.
“Since I’ve always been comfortable writing and singing many styles of music from the earliest age, I wanted this CD to reflect that versatility,” the Canadian singer writes in the package.
Even if you miss the explanation, it should be easy to figure out what is going on in “UP!” On the country disc, fiddles and steel guitars are featured prominently on key tracks, while the pop versions have been detwanged, with harder-edged guitars and strings sometimes dominant.
Both discs were produced by Twain’s husband and co-writer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who also oversaw a world music disc of the same songs that will be included with the pop-rock version in copies of “UP!” sold outside North America.
“We talked about putting out two separate albums here, one with the country disc and one with the pop disc, but we thought that could be confusing,” said Luke Lewis, the chairman of Mercury, MCA Nashville and Lost Highway Records. “People might hear the pop or country version on the radio and go into the store and buy the wrong album. I thought the best solution was to put them both in the same album.”
Lewis stressed that the decision -- which cost the label less than $1 per copy for the extra disc -- was driven by the music rather than by marketing.
“Some retailers wanted to say, ‘Buy one and get one free’ in their fliers, but we said no.... We don’t want to make this look like a gimmick,” Lewis said. “From touring around the world, Shania has this keen feeling that her audience is very varied and that some prefer pop music and some prefer country in terms of instrumentation.”
So is she a better country stylist or pop-rock singer?
Twain, who lives in Switzerland with her husband and their year-old son, has a strong, serviceable voice, but she doesn’t have a lot of character as a singer. That makes her more appealing on the country disc, where the instrumentation adds traces of personality and warmth. The pop-rock backing is more generic, leaving her voice colorless at times.
Even as a country artist, she doesn’t begin to match the soulful depth of an Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams. But she shows more convincing emotion than she did in 1995’s “The Woman in Me” or 1997’s “Come On Over.”
There is finally a glimpse of the woman behind the voice in the collection, which, fortunately, stays far from the diva-pop approach of “Cry,” the latest album from Twain’s major country rival, Faith Hill.
In the heart of “UP!” Twain even approaches the feminist spirit and playful swagger that make the Dixie Chicks so refreshing.
“Waiter! Bring Me Water!” isn’t as drastic a tale of revenge as the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” but it’s still fun to hear how the woman in the song cools down a boyfriend who’s gawking at someone else in a restaurant.
The lively “C’est La Vie,” which has a chorus reminiscent of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” is a sweet reminder to young girls that anything is now possible for them. The track gets bonus points for rhyming “geologist” and “novelist.”
For all the album’s emphasis on the upbeat (nine song titles are followed by exclamation points), the real breakthrough for Twain is in the gentleness of a series of love songs.
In “Forever and for Always,” especially, she expresses herself with the understated conviction that helped make Garth Brooks’ best music so touching a decade ago.
Twain, whose last two albums have kept credit-card lines humming to the tune of $600 million, also shows a sense of humor. In a move that is certainly going to bring a smile to the faces of retailers, who are counting on this album to help boost holiday sales, Twain titles one song “Ka-Ching!”