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August 4, 1993

Unbreakable Heart

Carlene CarterCarlene Carter, Little Love Letters (Giant 1993) -- On Little Love Letters, Ms. Carter (the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash) makes her bid for country superstardom. With her perky personality and free spirit, Carlene may find the heights for which she aims.

Carlene's seen her share of hard times (both musically and personally). In the early to mid-80s, Carlene attempted to fuse pop, country and rock-a-billy, with mixed results (see her uneven 1980 release, Musical Shapes). In addition, Carlene got caught up in a fast crowd, and became friendly with various addictive substances.

Having returned from the brink, Carlene is now imbued with a new sense of self, and a new desire to succeed. Little Love Letters is a friendly, accessible album by a talented and mellowed artist.

Produced by Howie Epstein (of Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers), featured cuts on Little Love Letters include the gently acoustic "Unbreakable Heart", "I Love You Cause I Want To" (with its scat-call chorus aimed at live performances), and "Heart is Right", a sweet love song.

Take away the banjos, mandolins, and pedal steel (none of which appear in overabundance), and the sound on Little Love Letters is pure pop. Carlene's ready for the bigtime, and she wants you to join her. Don't play coy with Ms. Carter -- Little Love Letters is a very alluring record.

Shelby LynneShelby Lynne, Temptation (Morgan Creek 1993) -- Temptation marks the Morgan Creek debut for Tennessee-based chanteuse Shelby Lynne, following three successful country albums on Epic.

On Temptation, Ms. Lynne follows the trail blazed by Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and other contemporary vocalists by branching into an over-the-top big band sound. However, Temptation also casts a longing eye towards k.d. lang's stunning 1992 release, Ingenue, and seeks to capture an intimate nightclub atmosphere on several numbers.

The album opens with the title track, a Texas-swing number, quickly shifts gear into the sultry lounge sound of "Tell Me I'm Crazy", and finally winds up with the playful "Come a Little Closer."

Shelby blends her southern background, strong voice, and 18-piece band to produce an album that shows that the country sound will not be pigeonholed into a simple (or single) category -- twangy guitars alone do not make a country album. Temptation may lack the immediate poignancy of Ingenue, but the effort is melodious and respectful of her musical heirs, both big-band and country.

Rosanne CashRosanne Cash, The Wheel (Columbia 1993) -- Speaking of Johnny Cash, how about his very grown-up daughter, Rosanne Cash? Rosanne is one of the strongest songwriters in country music today, and brings her pain and strength with her to the recording studio.

Rosanne was married to country singer Rodney Crowell for over ten years, and their partnership proved fruitful, both in the studio (including numerous excellent releases by each) and in the home (while becoming a leading country star, Rosanne had two daughters, Caitlin and Chelsea).

Proving that nothing is more permanent than change, the couple split in the early '90s. The rupture of their marriage clearly devastated Rosanne. Bereft of the influence of Rodney, she released the stark, solo-produced Interiors as the first step on her recovery. The Wheel (produced by Jon Leventhal, who has also worked with Shawn Colvin) marks the second step.

Rosanne is a thinking person's artist, and The Wheel is true to her generous talents. The album can hardly be called country -- it features Rosanne's evocative voice against a clean guitar/pop background. While I hear traces of bitterness and anger in her songs, my wife hears elements of faith and renewal. This is the mark of good poetry -- each listener hears something different.

I can't fault Gail's analysis. The hope is there. On the title track, Rosanne sings "And the wheel goes round and round And the flame in our souls, It will never burn out," while on "From the Ashes" she sings "I feel inspiration when all may be lost, I claim resurrection no matter what the cost".

Yet songs like "The Truth About You", with its line "I know the truth about you, babe, I know the stories you tell" and "Change Partners", with its line "In the middle of my life, When my fate was sealed and tied, The heavens rained down fire, The earth and moon conspired," reveal that Rosanne has not fully surmounted the pain.

In explaining The Wheel, Rosanne says that "others might recognize the feminine imagery and the mystical connections and the ties to the subconscious. It's all basically about that unfolding, that constant evolution of reworking and reforming that we all go through. It's all very elemental."

The Wheel is a deeply personal, honest statement by an artist who is seeking to rediscover her place. Rosanne doesn't just want to sell albums, and she doesn't just want to be a diva headlining sold-out arenas. She wants to grow and help you grow with her. This is music that quickly transcends its country constraints -- these are songs of pain,understanding, and growth. Rosanne, we hear you. We're with you.

-- Randy Krbechek

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