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?
Carlene Carter is certainly no rookie, but her new one, Little Acts of Treason, arrives at a time in her career when Carter must face the female-country image process anew or, as she says on the first cut, ''Hurricane,'' ''winds of change are knockin' on my door.'' Her first release since 1993, Little Acts of Treason is standard-issue Carlene, which is to say, uneven but riddled with terrific songs. Carter's music has never lost the rock & roll propulsiveness it's had since her creative and marital union with Nick Lowe, and here on songs like ''He Will Be Mine,'' ''Come Here You,'' and ''The Lucky Ones,'' she makes primal country-rock.
But as a commercial strategy, the music on Little Acts is problematic perhaps too hardcore (as both rock and old-fashioned country) to fit into the general softening of the format. And these days, Carter's once-refreshing spunky-gal image is commonplace among a slew of country hip-wigglers. B