The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

1 December 2002

Well Twained

I really, really wanted to hate Shania Twain's Up!

For one thing, the title is rendered, in some godawful imitation-of-someone's-bad-handwriting font, no less, with a blithering smilie [:)] in lieu of the proper U. And then there's that exclamation point, which is only the beginning: there are no fewer than ten of them scattered among the nineteen song titles. (One song, so help me, has two of them.) What's more, her main competition in the country-crossover-major-babe industry is Faith Hill, who could probably walk off with my heart if I actually had one.

Then there was this incredible conceit on a square of card stock, stuffed into the CD case:

Since I've always been comfortable writing and singing many styles of music from the earliest age, I wanted this CD to reflect that versatility....When I listen to the music, depending on what mood I'm in, I might put on the RED CD to hear the songs with an electric, rockier-edged sound, and if I want to hear them with a more acoustic, down-home feel, I listen to the GREEN CD.

Yep. It's a two-CD set, each CD running 72 minutes and odd, with exactly the same songs in slightly different arrangements and mixes, the green presumably aimed at traditional country fans, the red at the crossover buffs. For the um, record, I listened to the green first.

And really, it wouldn't have mattered if I'd started with the red sides. What makes Up! work isn't spiffy production (which Mutt Lange has been doing for decades) or instrumental timbre, but Shania Twain's songwriting. (Lange gets co-writer credit on all these, but while he may have contributed some instrumental bits, I am convinced these are her songs.) It is said that she refused to tour to support her first album, which she didn't write; she insisted on waiting until she could do an entire set of her own songs. The tracks here suggest that she knew exactly what she was doing, and there are enough hooks screwed into these tunes to outfit an entire Ace Hardware store.

There are pickable nits. I grew up in an era when a three-minute song was the exception, not the rule: if you turned in a 3:15 master to Berry Gordy, it wound up as a 2:55 single. Some of these songs are just too long, especially "Ain't No Particular Way", whose lyric sheet contains the cryptic notation "Repeat chorus (1.5x)". Most of the exclamation points are expendable. And the Twain/Lange combine's penchant for avoiding 4/4, while generally laudable, results in some clunky transitions, especially in "C'est La Vie", which alternates between being strangely arrhythmic and being Abba's "Dancing Queen".

But these are still just nits. What matters in a country record, even a record as far removed from country as this country record, is whether you believe what's being sung. And here, Shania shines; even fairly prefab sentiments like "Thank you baby / For lovin' me the way you do" come through as genuine. At her best — say, "What A Way To Wanna Be!", which actually contains the word "exfoliate" — she is wry and witty and warm.

And if you can't get around the red vs. green debate (there are even a couple of blue mixes available at Twain's Web site), there's this:

For me, having the variety of styles is reminiscent of my youth when I used to listen to our local radio station and hear Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Supertramp and the Bee Gees all in the same hour.

I know just what she means. Present-day radio would never permit this sort of thing, which is only one of many reasons why it blows.

And what we're going to see, I predict, is an enormous number of CDs burned at home with some of the green tracks and some of the red.

Incidentally, I had to scrap my planned title for this screed and start over: this does impress me. Much.

Posted at 8:20 AM to Tongue and Groove