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Two new views of Shania Twain

By Grant Alden

JANUARY 10, 2000:  The art of criticism is, by definition, an elitist and presumptuous enterprise. Only we few and overly proud are consumed with the detailed examination of sound, sense, vision, and/or language; only we (along with religious leaders and politicians, certainly an unholy trinity) would dare to tell strangers what is good, or good for them. Consequently there is no more pejorative phrase heard around the conference tables of major record labels than "critics' darling," for that is almost invariably code for "doesn't sell dookie." Conversely, in the critic's lexicon the phrase "multi-platinum" is a death knell, for, alas, rarely do the unwashed masses spend their money on art.

To wit: Hootie, Spice Girls, Shania Twain.

This is why Aristophanes, Chaucer, and Shakespeare -- to pick favorites (recorded music is too new a form) -- are such daunting figures, for they managed to create enduring works that appealed both to the mob and to its masters.

That is called magic.

Magic of some sort has clearly been at work in the life of Shania Twain, who has become an international star, and wealthy. Neither of which has much to do with art. She has accomplished this with two albums and an astonishing 17 videos; with 21 million units sold, Twain, in the company of Alanis Morissette and Carole King, is one of the most successful female artists of all time. Still, only the dawning realization that she co-wrote every one of those bloody songs -- this does not happen in Nashville, not even on Garth Brooks's records -- prompts a second listen.

Oh, let's be honest, a first listen.

Two new releases -- an "International Version" of 1997's Come On Over and an album of early demos titled Eilleen Shania Twain: Beginnings 1989-1990 -- make it even clearer that Twain's body of work is, for better and worse, very much the product of her singular and resolute creative vision. This observation is less obvious than it might seem. The two albums that have led to Twain's fame are collaborations with her husband, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, the British-bred producer of Def Leppard, Foreigner, and Michael Bolton. Twain and Lange wrote all the songs on '95's The Woman in Me (Mercury) and '97's Come On Over (Mercury); Lange produced both albums, and he sings many of the harmonies.

The presumption, then, is often that the singer is a puppet. Indeed, an enterprising Nashville video editor spliced together videos by Twain and Def Leppard, switching the music so that each artist appears to sing to the other's songs. The drum sounds are identical; so is the beat, and the gestures meant to accent the music fall almost exactly on cue.

Laughing misses the mark. Neither Mutt Lange nor the executives at Mercury Records nor her management team (who also manage Bruce Springsteen) have created Shania Twain. She created herself. And she -- like Dolly Parton, and Madonna -- has worked at it for most of her life.

Understandably, then, Ms. Twain would prefer that you ignore Eilleen Shania Twain: Beginnings 1989-1990, a dozen demos that make up the first release from Jomato Records (Box 681786, Franklin, Tennessee 37068-1786). And she's right; there is no aesthetically defensible reason to own this album. On the other hand, it reveals a great deal about who she would become.

But first, let us remember who Eilleen Twain was back in 1989. Born August 28, 1965, she was raised in Timmins, Ontario, a small mining town in rural, Canada. Her father, a Mr. Edwards, disappeared when she was two, and her mother married a man named Jerry Twain, an Ojibwa Indian, who adopted her. Life was hard, work was scarce, and the second of four children revealed her musical talents early on. Twain was in Toronto by 1987, pursuing a singing career, when her older sister called to tell her their parents had been killed in an automobile accident. Twain returned home to raise two younger brothers.

Ordinarily that would be the end of it, the end of her dream and the beginning of a hardscrabble existence teetering between blue-collar work (she's said to have run a chainsaw in the woods with her stepfather) and the dole. Well, by all accounts it was hard going, but Twain supported her family as a singer at the nearby Deerhurst Resort, appearing feathered and rhinestoned in a Las Vegas-style revue. That will give you some notion of her will, and her versatility.

So Shania (a name her stepfather gave her, or that she adopted; it means "I'm on my way") was 23 when she cut the demos just released, and raising two brothers. They recorded in the bass player's living room, on an eight-track deck, and the liner notes say she cut her vocals in the sauna. Of course it's not very good, but it is a template for much that would follow.

Twain wrote nine of the disc's 11 songs with LA producer/songwriter Paul Sabu, who also played guitar and sang back-up vocals on the sessions. (The 11th track is an oddly chosen remake of Bobbi Martin's 1970 hit "For the Love of Him"; the 12th remixes it for an imagined dance floor.) The sound comes as close as they can manage -- which is to say, not very close -- to the big rock sounds of, perhaps, Def Leppard, as filtered through the same Canadian consciousness that produced Alannah Myles's 1989 hit "Black Velvet." Myles and Twain were kicking around Toronto at the same time, and it's hard, hearing them back to back, to imagine there was no connection.

It is pop music, loud, full of big empty gestures, and far from country, and it sounds like hell -- you can't duplicate the sound of a multi-million-dollar studio in a living room. And the songs aren't very good. Except for "Bite My Lip," a spunky number about a woman enduring a lousy job, a groping boss, and an undependable boyfriend, a song that presages Twain's later inspiration.

Yes, there's the curiosity of hearing Twain sing Cher's "Half Breed." Later, when it was revealed that Jerry Twain was her stepfather, Shania would be charged with trying to capitalize on imagined Indian bloodlines. It is hard to believe that the other kids in her home town made such neat distinctions about her parentage. Anyway, it's a lousy version of a lousy song on a lousy album, part of the learning curve that no artist should have to explain.

At the other end of that learning curve is Twain's second new release, though it's hardly new either. Twain, understand, is marketed as a country artist only in certain segments of the world. Now, in large part because it's been two years since the original Come On Over was released, the reworked "International Version" has been introduced into the US market. This is not simply a remix of the original album, with the country instruments turned down (or off), though it is that as well. Twain and Lange spent several months thoroughly reimagining this incarnation of Come On Over, and though the songs are the same, they are remixed, completely resequenced, and their context utterly transformed.

This Come On Over is, in fact, surprisingly close to the full-budget realization of the sound and sensibility revealed on Beginnings. Gone is the warmth of her country presentation; in its place is the perfect, precise, passionless sound of a studio computer. It is the difference between contemporary pop music, which is meant to be disposable and distant, and country music, which is meant to be intimate and direct. Rarely has an artist so directly challenged her audience to re-evaluate the context and content of her work. (The hubris of Garth Brooks's digression as Chris Gaines hardly counts.)

Twain's homonymous Mercury debut came out in 1993, and it smelled of the Nashville factory. She was allowed to co-write only one of the 10 tracks on it, and it did not sell.

There is a yelp, and then a laugh, at the beginning of "Any Man of Mine," the second track on The Woman in Me -- Shania's first album with Lange -- that is nearly as powerful an epiphany of discovery as that famous moment in Sun Studios when Elvis Presley first hit his stride. Throughout she sings with unbridled, unfeigned joy, and the result is a tremendous pop song. Or maybe that, too, was manufactured.

The closest cousin to that song on Come On Over is "Love Gets Me Every Time," and it takes more than a little skill to sing "I gol' darn gone and done it" and mean it and not sound like a complete idiot. That line, and the way Twain phrases it, does as much to locate her amid the country pantheon of struggling small-town women as anything in her repertoire. And it is that connection that makes her a compelling figure to her female audience (the men are, naturally, more easily led).

Reimagined on the international Come On Over, "Love Gets Me Every Time" acquires a cynical sheen, and Shania takes some distance from her words. One version comes from the heart; the other comes -- well, I don't know where it comes from but I don't want to go there. And they're almost identical vocal takes.

It is one thing for an artist like, say, fellow Canadian Neil Young to reinvent his music continually during the course of a long career. His is a restless muse, but no matter how he chooses to orchestrate his songs, that core sensibility that identifies them inescapably as Neil Young's work remains unchanged. The international Come On Over suggests not that Twain has a restless muse but that she has no core sensibility. That she has no essence; that her music stands for no art; that it's all decoration.

This is largely irrelevant to the pop audience, but it matters deeply within the confines of country music. And it matters deeply if Shania Twain wishes to be taken seriously as an artist, if she values the ability of her songs to continue to reach -- and touch -- a broad and receptive audience. And it matters if she hopes her music will last. Perhaps her art says only, "Here I am, look at me while I entertain you." Perhaps that's what she learned dancing in sequins. But Shania Twain, like Elvis, hints at rather more complexity, and teases.

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