There's something about the studio that intimidates even the most self-assured women. Okay, so maybe it does take women longer to find just the right material. Maybe the problem is a songwriter shortage. But it's difficult to dispel the notion that the men in their lives -- producers, arrangers, A&R men -- have somewhat limited visions of the roles women can play for pay on the charts.
Juice Newton, for example, has a perfectly good voice: full-bodied, expressive and naturally resonant. Given punchy material, she might turn on the power, but "Juice" (Capitol ST-12136) unfortunately fails to live up to its name. Newton looks and sounds like the classic queen of the silver dollar, and so pegged, she turns out a pleasant but unremarkable set of country-rock covers.
"Angel of the Morning," her Top 10 single and the traditional track one, side one, is exemplary. It's a song with proven appeal, having scored a crossover hit 12 or 13 years ago for Merrilee Rush, useful for its lightweight-liberal lyrics (along the lines of "Listen, if this one-night stand doesn't stretch into a meaningful relationship, I won't collapse until you've left for work") and for its melodic melancholy.
The song and Newton's voice are so well-matched that, in effect, she is only costarring in her own record. Like the riders of the Royal Lippizaner stallions, who aspire to invisibility in order to glorify the horse, Newton is obscured by her vehicle.
None of the other songs on the album is any rougher riding. Richly harmonized and artfully arranged, Newton glides through the likes of Boudleaux Bryant's "All I Have to Do Is Dream," Elton John's and Bernie Taupin's "Country Comfort," Hank DeVito's "Ride 'Em Cowboy." All are pleasant, and there is a spark or two in "Ride 'Em Cowboy," but for the most part, it's just more pale Emmylou Harris.
Rosanne Cash is ruddy enough, but she's still having trouble asserting herself. Her second album, "Seven Year Ache" (Columbia JC 36965), has several fine moments, but she still has one foot in the Emmylou groove -- encouraged, perhaps unthinkingly, by her producer-husband, longtime Emmylou associate Rodney Crowell, more Hank DeVito and Harris herself, who makes a couple of harmonizing appearances.
The Carter-Cash genealogy is becoming as complex as Queen Victoria's, but suffice it to say that Rosanne Cash is Johnny's daughter, having inherited a depth of tone and a talent for the understated delivery. In "Seven Year Ache," Cash has taken on a mixed bag of composers -- Keith Sykes, Merle Haggard, Steve Forbert, Tom Petty -- with an indigo alto and a tantalizing hint of rough stuff.
Among the best numbers on the album are "My Baby Thinks He's a Train," a smooth, sly hookup of double entendres; and Cash's own "Blue Moon With Heartache," a gem of steady, solitary regret: "Lately I'm amazed at how blind we can be/Lately even dreamin' feels like old reality."
Unfortunately, such tracks as "Where Will the Words Come From?" are once again too mellow, too laidback and -- with background vocals from Crowell and Harris -- indistinguishable from dozens of old ungelled Linda Ronstadt or Harris. (The problem of having become stereotypes for new vocalists -- co-opted, in effect -- must be even more galling to these longtime journeymen.)
Unlike Newton, who may not be strong enough to break out of the overdub trap, Cash seems larger than her material. She needs to work out with some harder material, flex her muscles a little. Her choice of songs indicates that she has the instinct, but not the initiative.
Initiative must not be a problem for Sheena Easton ("Sheena Easton," EMI America ST-17049). Undeterred by a mediocre voice and an absolute paucity of expression. Easton has released one of the most flagrantly mechanical boogie-to-the-metronome albums of this supposedly enlightened decade.
Imagine a shrilly soprano Tony Orlando, backed by vacuous males who, at unwary or conscience-stricken moments, completely overwhelm the nominal star. Imagine such lyrical advice as "Cry . . . hang your life out to dry," and if the pit of your stomach doesn't start to hurt, you may like this album. In fact, this paragon of plastic pop already has a Top 10 single, "Morning Train (Nine to Five)," which proceeds as if Easton were counting out the rhythm on her fingers.
The album is a masterpiece of the overdubber's art, tracked as heavily as Penn Station. The sheer sound quality is excellent, the album having been recorded at George Martin's Air Studio in Montserrat, but mediocrity will out.
Incidentally, if EMI is seriously grooming Easton for pop stardom, they'd best hire her a lip-synching coach. Judging from the Home Box Office filler which features Easton riding a train to her hit recording, she finds it impossible to snap her fingers, shift her weight from hip to hip and sing at the same time.