Two years ago, when LeAnn Rimes catapulted onto the scene with the smash single ''Blue,'' an irresistible retro confection that channeled the ghost of Patsy Cline, the then 13-year-old was tactfully asked how much she'd studied the history of country music. Cline was the first person she'd really listened to, Rimes said, but she didn't have a particular affinity for Buddy Holly (in whose old studios her breakthrough album, Blue, was recorded). Nor did she know much about country great Eddy Arnold until they dueted on Blue's ''Cattle Call.'' Rimes' real influences? Barbra Streisand. Judy Garland. And Celine Dion.
Today, Rimes' favorite singer is the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. And it's with an unlistenable cover of his ''Purple Rain'' that she closes Sittin' on Top of the World (Curb), the fourth Rimes album to be released in only 22 months. This barely pubescent performer sounds both ridiculous and totally unbelievable as she attempts to replicate the stuttering syllables of the sexually complicated Prince.
Discovering His Royal Badness and his intense style of cerebral/libidinal funk must have been a revelation for Rimes. Indeed, her woeful ignorance of singers beyond the all-out belters who formed her musical bedrock is at the heart of the trouble with Top of the World, and with the two schlocky albums, Unchained Melody/The Early Years and You Light Up My Life Inspirational Songs, that preceded it. The teen has such prodigious pipes that naturally, record execs fell all over themselves to sign her. But apparently no one thought it made much difference if she couldn't invest her repertoire with the shading, subtlety, and knowing nuance that turns a pro into a master, particularly as her musical choices grew more lyrically and melodically sophisticated. Nor did they seem to care that she didn't have the life experience or emotional resonance to convincingly sell much of her material. ''I don't think I have to live anything to sing it,'' Rimes has said. ''Because like an actress is an interpreter of a script, I'm an interpreter of a song. And if I love the song, I'm going to put all I've got into singing it.''
And how. On most of World, Rimes comes across as a warbling, windup Barbie, hollerin' 'em out full tilt till the cows come home. In 15 songs, Rimes moves through a program carefully planned to galvanize her two marketplace strongholds country and adult contemporary. To service both (and to show what her handlers learned when her version of Diane Warren's ''How Do I Live'' got bounced from the Con Air soundtrack, only to end up a mammoth AC hit), Rimes' label, Curb, has simultaneously released two singles: the popish ''Commitment'' for the country set, and for the MOR audience, ''Looking Through Your Eyes,'' an airless ballad written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster for the animated film Quest for Camelot. There's also another bankable Warren song, ''Feels Like Home,'' waiting in the wings, but like ''Looking Through Your Eyes,'' it's rendered soulless and overblown.
Much of the blame rests on the shoulders of producer Wilbur C. Rimes, LeAnn's father, who sold oil-drilling equipment before his foray into music. Daddy Rimes' MO is to record in Texas but to try to make the music sound like it came out of L.A., often squeezing as many instruments as possible onto a track without leaving any breathing room. To the elder Rimes, it seems enough just to get it all down. He reduces Amanda Marshall's title song to exercise music and, in failing to add anything new to the Jann Arden hit ''Insensitive,'' lets it fall flat. (LeAnn sounds less like a woman who's been humped and dumped than a teenager who's just found something rude written about her on the blackboard.) The Rimeses fare better with ''When Am I Gonna Get Over You,'' a Bryan White tune upon which country's current heartthrob also supplies background vocals. With enough space between the keening fiddle and the mournful guitar, and with White's emotional vocal lines eliciting the same from Rimes, LeAnn finally sounds real. But the majority of the other country offerings, which include three songs by Curb house writer Deborah Allen and partner Rafe Van Hoy, sound like more product, little more than a string of wannabe radio hits.
If there's a personality behind the young singer or any self-awareness of her ultimate contribution to pop other than as a mega-seller footnote it's not easily found here. Still, it's encouraging to see that the cowriter of one of World's strongest ballads, ''More Than Anyone Deserves,'' is LeAnn herself. Rimes' advisers might do well to consider letting her mature as a singer, writer, and human being before rushing out album No. 5. Otherwise, this phenom might find herself shaking her head when the novelty of her youth wears off and she's still too young to vote. C