On Record -- Nicolette Larson, "In the Nick of Time (Warner Bros. HS3370).; In Concert -- Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt, in the Capital Centre March 22 at 8.

It's a shame that Southern California songbird Nicolette Larson should start so promising and then falter when barely in flight.

With her single, "Lotta Love," and the 1978 Rolling Stone Best Female Singer Award, this delicate girl from Kansas City looked to be headed for the big time. But "In the Nick of Time," her flaccid second offering moves her back to square one.

Larson had a storybook musical beginning: the adolescent dreams of stardom, the intoxicating trip to the Big City (in this case, San Francisco), and, finally, the Big Break, a tour with country singer Hoyt Axton.

Then, while on tour with Commander Cody, she was spotted by the record company scout in the audience. (He was from Warner Brothers, in this case.) He hooked her up with the famous producer, Ted Templeman, who'd done magic for the Doobie Brothers, Van Moorison, Carly Simon and Little Feat. The "chemistry" was right, and the alubum "Nicolette" was born. "Lotta Love," went gold. Commercially, things were looking up.

Artistically, however, "Nicolette" got a lukewarm, if not downright unfriendly critical reception. "In the Nick of Time," Larson's second release, is so lacking in spirituality and conviction that even the production wizardry of Ted Templeman probably won't be able to rescue it from a similar fate.

Larson, like Ronstadt, is a singer, an interpreter of others' material. 'her songs have to be chosen to showcase her talents. "In the Nick of Time," however, is riddled with half-baked selections.

One annoying flaw is the all-star marching band playing back-up. The whole Laurel Canyon crew from "Nicolette" is back, with Paul Barrer and Bill Payne from Little Feat, Mike McDonald, the current guiding light of the Doobie Brothers, and Linda Ronstadt. You hear them all, loud and clear. But when Larson doesn't have to compete with them, she actually does a creditable job.

"Let Me Go, Love," written by and sung with McDonald, is a gentle, lilting lamentation over love-gone-sour, and the song doesn't pose too great a challenge for Larson's thin voice. "Isn't It Alwalys Love," a cover of a Karla Bonoff song from 1975, is propelled by a lazy, undulating reggae beat which meshes smoothly with Larson's tender, mourning vocals. It's Southern California mellow in an alpha state.