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Real-world women sing it like it is

By SEAN DALY
Published September 27, 2005


Gretchen Wilson, All Jacked Up (Epic) Grade: B-

Sheryl Crow, Wildflower (A&M Records) Grade: B+

Former bartender Gretchen Wilson and former bar-bander Sheryl Crow know a thing or two about last-call politics and blue-collar come-ons. Hovering somewhere in the tough-gal realm between heartbreaking howler Janis Joplin and the whiskey-belting Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wilson, 32, and Crow, 42, both spent time as world-weary saloon poets unafraid to both love a man and kick him to the curb.

Don't underestimate the power of these Midwestern talents (Wilson hails from Pocahontas, Ill., and Crow from Kennett, Mo.). Both release new albums today: Wilson's All Jacked Up and Crow's Wildflower. American pop music, rife as it is with unrealistic role models, could use more talents just like 'em. Sure, the Pussycat Dolls are fun, but can they sing you through a bad breakup or a killer hangover? Exactly.

Of course, it's getting harder and harder to sell these women as regular gals. Wilson's 2004 debut, the near-perfect Here for the Party, sold more than 4-million copies, making her the biggest thing to hit Nashville since Faith Hill's hair. Wilson's career-launching first single, the high-five holler Redneck Woman, became a rallying cry for dog-tired moms with anti-Cosmo fashion sense: "I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip." After that, even I was pricing doublewides.

Crow commenced her career as everyone's favorite tippling partner. Her debut, 1993's Tuesday Night Music Club, went multiplatinum on the strength of ubiquitous hits All I Wanna Do and Leaving Las Vegas; her 1996 self-titled follow-up featured the smash If It Makes You Happy, a devastating bit of sonic cinema that focused on a likable couple's downward spiral. Good albums followed - until 2002's lackluster C'mon C'mon, which sounded like someone bored of being a pop star. Making matters worse, Crow, a nine-time Grammy winner, is perhaps best known these days as the fiancee of seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong.

Ultimately, Wilson's and Crow's successes boil down to "relate-ability." It's not easy to pull off, as one of the two women disappointingly demonstrates with her new disc. Of course, if you guessed which new album would be more genuine, more honest and more painfully candid, you'd probably be wrong.

Wilson's All Jacked Up is one of the most-anticipated releases of the year, and it will no doubt challenge new albums from 50 Cent and Kanye West for the title of 2005 sales champ. She's not just a country star anymore; she's a star star. There's one nagging problem, however: All Jacked Up just ain't all that.

Wilson often comes across as a parody of her Redneck Woman persona. She and frequent writing partner John Rich (one half of hick-hop progenitors Big & Rich) lose track of the singer's basic appeal, which is that of a gal pal, a neighbor, a confidant - you know, "good people." On the fast, boozy title track, Wilson winds up sounding like a party fouler who's about to barf beer on your shoes and then call your mama a floozy. The album's most egregiously phony cut is Skoal Ring: "Don't need no diamond ring, don't want a bunch of bling bling. The only thing I really need, is a man with a Skoal ring." Bling bling?! Wow, is that bad or what? Wanting to be Tanya Tucker is one thing. Wanting to be Mrs. Kevin Federline is another.

A husky old-school singer with genuine gospel fire, Wilson is too bright a talent to make a total bomb. She and Rich get it right on the fiddle-friendly California Girls, a chugging, driving song that nails what Gretchen represents for her female fans: "That Paris Hilton gets under my skin, with her big fake smile and her painted on tan. She'd never have a chance at a real man!" And on the pedal-steel keeper Full Time Job, a slow-dance salute to Everywoman, she claims: "I'm a mother, I'm a lover, a chef, a referee." This time, you believe her.

The album's best cut - and easily worth the price of admission - isn't even on the track listing. It's a hidden bonus cut, and hoo boy, is it spectacular. "Four players, one microphone, one voice, one take," Wilson hushes before launching into a head-dizzying homage to Billie Holiday's Good Morning Heartache. She can't match Lady Day's pipes, of course, but that's part of the charm. Here she's a smart redneck woman - not just a crude one.

Wilson may have relied too heavily on a trusted formula, but Wildflower is unlike any Sheryl Crow album you've heard. You won't find any radio-ready singles, and yet it's absolutely engrossing as she bids adieu to a stormy romantic past and welcomes the relative stability of marriage. Yes, this is her "Lance" record, and that's a potentially pukey thought. But Crow fans will find her even more vulnerable and open than before. She's in love - and it's totally freaking her out.

In the liner notes, Crow thanks Elton John as an influence, but that's not crass name-dropping: The album's best tracks play like Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word and Someone Saved My Life Tonight, albeit with bigger strings, bigger hooks and a roots-rockier feel. The music is epic, but Crow's voice stays intimate, a nifty technical trick for sure. If you're curious what a brilliantly produced album sounds like - Crow worked the soundboard alongside Jeff Trott and John Shanks - this is a good example.

"My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away," Crow sings on Always on Your Side, on which she hints to a curious camaraderie with an ex. By the time the strings start crashing and she borrows Elton's "Butterflies are free to fly," more than a few listeners will be mascara-streaked.

Almost as good are the album's first three songs: the slow-burning I Know Why (perhaps the most obvious love-my-Lance track), the bittersweet drama-queen bigness of Perfect Lie (which would be perfect for the end credits of a Cameron Crowe movie), and first single Good Is Good, which grooves along on some slide-guitar noodling and kindly counsels her former flames to stop being losers.

Whereas Wilson's Billie Holiday homage saved All Jacked Up from the budget bin, the New Agey dreck of Chances Are is lousy enough to keep Wildflower off year-end best-of lists. Over Middle Eastern percussion and breezy sound effects, Crow sings: "Terror runs for king I said. It is better to explore within. We were apes before we spoke of sin. The cosmos sits on the tip of a pin."

Yep, that stinks. But rest assured that most of Wildflower rings true: just a Midwestern girl trying to figure out how she got from broken-down bars to the Tour de France.