THE ALBUM -- Carlene Carter, "Musical Shapes," Warner Bros. (BSK 3465).
One of the season's prime releases, powerhouse Carlene Carter's "Musical Shapes" is calculated to take country rock one step further from its country & western roots. Fortunately, Carter's tie to Nashville prevail over any trendy pop-rock touches.
Picture a new wave cowgirl: a female Elvis Costello/Johnny Cash merger. That's Carlene Carter, down-home wild child, talented songwriter dabbling in the latest pop influences on her third LP.
Well, you can take the girl out of the country -- but when your mother is June Carter, your stepfather is Johnny Cash and your grandmother, Mother Maybelle Carter, taught you to play guitar at an early age, you can't blame the world for expecting you to follow in the tradition of a famous country-music family.
Still, you can confound expectations by having your husband Nick Lowe of London produce an album. Lowe, known for his hit "Cruel to Be Kind," has more important credits as producer of Costello, the Pretenders and Dave Edmunds -- new wavers and English rockers of note.
Throughout "Musical Shapes," Lowe plays bass besides lending a deft touch to the slick country-rock numbers. Edmunds' hard-edged guitar work and backing licks by Bob Andrews of the Rumor and John McFee of the Doobie Brothers contribute to the progressive rock tone. Edmunds also turns in a Southern-style vocal on "Baby Ride Easy," a spoofing love duet between a truck driver and a waitress that covers every country cliche: If your lovin' is good And your cookin' ain't greasy Then you chuck the chuckwagon And we'll ride away
Carter wrote eight of the album's dozen songs (her relatives penned a couple of the others), and she plays piano on most cuts as well. She expertly wraps energetic rockers around sentimental country themes -- lowlife, broken hearts and the lure of love -- coming up with a distinctive rockabilly/-pop fusion.It's inevitable that she'll be compared to Linda Ronstadt (in her country/touch-of-punk incarnation). But unlike the crossover superstar, Carter never resorts to a scream and her country twang is the real thing.
To keep old customs alive, the new LP includes some old Carter Family favorites. "Foggy Mountain Top" incorporates the best of country pedal steel and a true grit vocal in tribute to "the boy I love the best." Likewise, Carlene's earthy voice makes the most of June Carter's "Ring of Fire" on swaying verses between exotic, floating electric-guitar riffs. These cuts perfectly match the white cowgirl boots Carlene sports on the album cover. (At times, the new wavers' influences seem as transparent as the mod fishnet tights she is also modeling.)
Away from the Nashville skyline, the young Carter rebel indulges in words and ideas that no self-respectin' older country female vocalist would touch. On "Too Drunk (to Remember)" she wails about waking up with a stranger: "Had a helluva time . . . my head is reelin' . . . but I don't recognize you at all." An electric organ creates an updated revival sound and her spoken interludes has all the schmaltz of an old country tearjerker, plus the wit of an upstart rocker.
Ultimately, when she sings "I'm So Cool," her husky alto shapes up as a tough asset. The tune is a speeding rocker, with pounding drums, relentless guitar chords and a foxy vocal. "Eat your heart out," she drawls in an aside. And who would mess with her?