This is a peculiar, shifting time for new female country singers. Their role models are immediate and disparate ones. Reba McEntire continues to sell millions of records on the strength of a sophisticated sense of melodrama plus a stage act that involves multiple costume changes and lots of smoke. By contrast, Emmylou Harris presides over female-country like a benign earth goddess she doesn't go platinum much, but her no-nonsense, no-frills attitude is strongly echoed in currently more popular performers such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Alison Krauss. Late-breaking role model: Shania Twain, the Canadian rookie with a voice modeled after Linda Ronstadt's and a video presence a la Cindy Crawford's, is now achieving top 10 pop-crossover success. Given these contrasting examples of brash showmanship, low-key authenticity, and hubba-hubba slinkiness, what's a girl to do?
Well, if you're Helen Darling, you emulate the obvious. Her debut collection, Helen Darling, strives mightily to cover all the fashionable bases. The album's first single, ''Jenny Come Back,'' offers a jolly melody containing a serious feminist argument: Don't play up to social stereotypes be your own woman. Darling sings it in her strong, low soprano with an alluringly husky edge, yet the emotions in ''Jenny'' are so tidy that she ends up sounding like what she used to be: a jingle singer. Helen Darling was coproduced by country's Mark Wright (Clint Black, Mark Chestnut) and pop's Michael Omartian (Christopher Cross, Amy Grant), and overall, the album owes more to the slick pop style of Omartian. There's probably no stopping Darling's impending middle-of-the-road country success. C