Reba McEntire might be prone to overwrought schmaltz, but she's also one of country's premier realists. On previous albums, she's hit home with powerful emotional topics ranging from women and social isolation to familial breakdown, connecting her to her audience in a way no other country female can claim. On her last album, It's Your Call, her music took a distressing middle- of-the-road turn, but on Read My Mind, she sandwiches in enough boiling rhythms (''Everything That You Want'') and brooding melodies (''I Wouldn't Wanna Be You'') to reflect the anger and disillusionment of the middle class in the '90s. The song that accomplishes this best, ''She Thinks His Name Is John,'' is a quiet offering about a woman dying of AIDS contracted from a one-night stand. McEntire wisely understates her vocals (none of her trademark acrobatics here), and the subtlety lends the song added power. It's a gutsy choice for a singer with a decidedly conservative audience.
But in her move to adult-contemporary pop, McEntire sometimes falls into a predictable trap. The album's wash of swirling keyboards and synthesizers is meant to be a sensitive backdrop for the bold colors of her voice. Actually, it creates a sleepwalking effect that detracts from her performance. For the most part, though, McEntire saves herself from bathos through her ability to totally inhabit a song. Whether or not you fully agree with her taste, it's hard not to like a woman who keeps redefining the country mainstream.