Everything contradictory about Sheryl Crow is embodied in ''Soak Up the Sun,'' the initial single off C'mon, C'mon. An apparent dig at our information-saturated culture, the song is at best a mild knuckle rap from someone who shows up in the media at least once a week. In interviews, Crow regularly laments the music business' emphasis on hits, image, and instant gratification. Yet ''Soak Up the Sun,'' a bouncy trifle that amounts to Crow lite, can already be heard in an American Express ad, and I didn't notice any .45s pointed at her head in the song's skin-baring video. And for all her seeming disillusionment with stardom, C'mon, C'mon is a testament to her networking skills: One club-hopping pal or another, from Lenny Kravitz to Gwyneth Paltrow, makes an appearance on nearly every song.
These same disparities persist through the rest of the album. ''All our pop stars look like porn/All my heroes hit the highway,'' she grouses in ''Steve McQueen,'' a carousing ode to her own hit-the-road, Marlboro Girl self-image. This from a woman who showed up at February's Grammy ceremony looking like an (admittedly fetching) streetwalker? And if she's such a rebel ''I wanna rock and roll this party,'' she sings in that song why does she make us suffer through ''It's So Easy,'' a waxy adultery ballad and duet with Don Henley that could double as the theme song to an especially gloppy Paltrow movie?
But in the same way Crow works a room, so does C'mon, C'mon jostle its way into your head. Crow is no artiste, but she is a supreme craftsperson; the spawn of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, she carries on their pop-craft traditions their resistance to envisioning a world beyond 1979 without becoming a walking, talking classic-rock museum exhibit. Like her three previous studio records, C'mon, C'mon is rooted in old-school Cali pop but somehow manages never to sound fusty or musty.
It helps that Crow, unlike many of her nouveau roots-rock peers, feels music is as vital as words. Once again, she offers up a litany of good, bad, flawed, and doomed relationships with lovers, friends, and poseurs. She wants the pain to go away but, thankfully, not the hooks she and her cowriters (including guitarist Jeff Trott) effortlessly crank out. She overcomes the romantic torment in the title song and ''Over You'' with a chiming sound as big as a church, and she sets ''Hole in My Pocket,'' another ode to her own free-spirited tendencies, to a kicky groove. As she has with many of her most memorable songs, from ''If It Makes You Happy'' to ''My Favorite Mistake,'' she mines leftover Keith Richards riffs for the sarcastic put-down ''You're an Original'' and the consoling ''Abilene,'' with Kravitz and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, respectively, who add harmonies to Crow's own honeyed twang.
She's been here before, but not like this. More pop than Americana, C'mon, C'mon is her most overbaked work, swathed in strings, layers of guitars, drum loops, and whatever else was available in the studio. It's an approach that can backfire as much as it can inspire. ''Safe and Sound,'' a Sept. 11-inspired ballad, suffers from a lugubrious arrangement, but ''It's Only Love'' is more luscious and evocative than the sparer rendition she produced for Nicks last year.
The album ends on an austere note with ''Weather Channel,'' a reflection on depression that, despite its punny title, is dark and somber. From its dabs of artsy orchestration to its gentle Emmylou Harris harmony, it's clearly intended to be a major statement: ''I got friends/They're waiting for me to comb out my hair/Come outside and join the human race,'' Crow sings with fragile resolve. It's an unintentionally perfect capper. Sheryl Crow: VH1 party girl or tormented loner? The album never fully answers that question maybe she doesn't know the answer herself but give her this: She makes you enjoy the ride anyway. B+