LeAnn Rimes’ debut album, Blue, is still a country-music best-seller and yielding hit singles, yet her premature-in-every-sense follow-up, Unchained Melody/The Early Years, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. That means there are an awful lot of people out there who crave the sound of Rimes’ ringing voice singing anything. And I mean anything — even, on this motley collection of tracks cut before Blue, the umpteenth version of the Beatles’ ”Yesterday.” Rimes, who was 11 and 12 when Early Years was recorded, delivers Paul McCartney’s measured melancholy with the supple power and scant subtlety of a kid blessed with pipes she’s still figuring out how to use.
Rimes just won two Grammys, including Best New Artist in a category filled with the kind of chirpy fledgling rockers (No Doubt, Jewel) whom Grammy voters usually fall over themselves to reward, so you know Rimes is attracting serious industry attention. And in the context of country-music history, she fits the sort of line of succession that publicity departments love: Rimes is frequently compared to Brenda Lee (15 and known as ”Little Miss Dynamite” at the time of her biggest hit, ”I’m Sorry,” in 1960) and Tanya Tucker (a mere 13 when she broke through with ”Delta Dawn,” about a woman going insane).
What struck listeners about Lee’s and Tucker’s hits was the emotional knowingness behind the youthful voices. This is where Rimes hits a snag. Whenever Early Years starts sounding stiff, it’s most often because the grown-up lyrics aren’t being interpreted that way by the singer. When in doubt, LeAnn just belts ‘em out, trying to get a song across on sheer vocal power, very much in the manner of Linda Ronstadt in her late-’70s glory.
It’s also significant that precursor Tucker had a great producer — Billy Sherrill — shaping her performances, while Rimes’ primary producer is her dad. On Early Years, Wilbur Rimes surrounds his daughter with plodding arrangements, tootling flutes, and maudlin piano chords. Still, you can hear the canniness that would soon result in ”Blue,” LeAnn’s boffo version of a song written 30 years ago for Patsy Cline. Like the Blue album, The Early Years leads off with a slice of old-fashioned country; here it’s Patsy Montana’s ’30s hit ”I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” too campy a choice to have the emotional resonance of Rimes’ Cline cover.
After that, however, Early Years becomes a hodgepodge, its low point being a woefully uncomprehending reading of Bill Monroe’s ”Blue Moon of Kentucky,” its high point a dandy, twanging version of a lesser-known country chestnut, ”Sure Thing.” Given her instinctive predilection for melodrama, Rimes fares well with the most bombastic material, approaching it like a pint-sized, country-fried Michael Bolton. You can tell she studied Whitney Houston’s version of ”I Will Always Love You” more closely than she did that of its author, Dolly Parton. And she turns the title tune, the Righteous Brothers’ ”Unchained Melody,” into a poignant plea from a child’s heart.
It’s no wonder Rimes has a soft spot for pop — it remains the music of youth in the same sense that country is essentially a genre of middle age, rife with adult concerns about family, marriage, and infidelity. But this influence turns pernicious whenever it leads her father to crank up the guitars and encourage LeAnn to rock out — which is to say, yell. The one song Rimes herself had a hand in writing, ”Share My Love,” sounds like something unearthed from an old REO Speedwagon album.
One could chalk this up to the inexperience of a then prepubescent, but that doesn’t give Rimes’ substantial talent the credit it deserves. What is clear from this early work is that, now a superstar at 14, Rimes’ post-Blue goal should be to invest that talent with her own sensibility, her own soul. To sustain her present momentum, she has to come up with a declaration of independence.