Never mind that Faith Hill is actually underrated as a record maker, not unlike her nearest rival, Shania Twain. There are other, more ignoble reasons to appreciate these crossover queens, even forgetting the eye-candy factor. I get a petty kick out of the way they irritate the tender sensibilities of some of country music's more self-important border guards, who would sooner die than concede that these thrushes fall comfortably within a glamour-girl tradition dating back at least as far as Patsy Cline. (Of course, the most ardent defenders of orthodoxy are the junior believers -- those tattooed alt-rock refugees who discovered Merle three weeks ago and can already bark about which stars of the genre ''aren't really country.'')
This fall, when Hill's and Twain's new albums are likely to be duking it out for chart dominance, I envision the purists getting so pent up with rage that their heads burst, ''Scanners''-style, from the injustice of it all. And if the promise of spontaneous combustion isn't cause enough to join the Faith and Shania fan clubs, what is?
That said, it won't be just the hardcore self-righteous opining that Cry, Hill's first album since 1999's ''Breathe,'' isn't a country record. It isn't, in any definable sense, other than its connection to the singer's geographical base, fan demographics, and lyrical temperament -- which, come to think of it, are the only elements that really define country these days. Anyhow, while Twain is reportedly preparing separate country and rock mixes of her upcoming material, Hill is offering just one take-it-or-leave-it version that makes no stylistic concessions to genre standards. There's not a fiddle in earshot (not counting the ones in the orchestra) and even on a power ballad like ''When the Lights Go Down,'' where it would've been simple enough to slip in a subliminal steel guitar midway through the second verse just to keep traditionalists in pocket, she resists the temptation. So give her points for chutzpah, even if you're subtracting 'em for having traded in farmland anthems for lite funk. This is her stab at soul, and there ain't nothin' you can do about it -- to paraphrase the Supremes line that Hill quotes verbatim as an assertive aside in ''Free,'' the album's opener.
Even cowgirls get the rhythm & blues, it turns out. Meanwhile, that faint clinking sound you hear isn't some weird percussion touch; it's the distant clatter of critics sharpening their knives, ready to take on another fair-haired superstar getting in touch with her inner blackness, as Hill might be said to be doing on a third or so of the tracks. ''Cry'' invites some of the criticism that will inevitably come its way, with slick arrangements that throw together squalling hair-metal guitars, thundering drums, and even the odd scratching sound amid you-go-girl choruses. This isn't the first time that Nashville producers have tried for a sonic leap and instead arrived in the '80s.
Then again, there's something to be said for that decade -- the last pre-Mariah epoch when white chicks could sing the blues (or some adult-contemporary variation thereof) without opening a can of whup-ass. So if ''Cry'' occasionally resembles a really good Melissa Manchester record, that ain't bad. You can imagine how a browbeater like Christina Aguilera might murder a ballad like ''If This Is the End''; ditto ''American Idol'''s cast of scary melisma freaks. In this climate, Hill's ability to nail a decent song with something shy of full gospel intensity feels like an old-fashioned godsend.
Modesty becomes a virtue in other ways. The themes in these 14 songs reference plenty of personal hang-ups and relational handicaps, usually leading to self-discovery and transformation -- real ''I will survive'' stuff. When she waxes insecure in a line like ''There's someone out there who thinks I'm beautiful,'' the Cover Girl spokesmodel runs the risk of having hausfraus across America respond, ''Puh-leeze.'' But there's a humility inherent in her persona -- probably unique to anyone who's ever appeared on a VH1 ''Divas'' special -- that makes even the drama-queen theatrics improbably down-to-earth and relatable.
Occasionally, the inspirational tone gets a bit much; it's then that you especially appreciate the Angie Aparo-penned title tune, which provides a rare bit of playful vindictiveness, camouflaged by its soaring hook. Although I'm reluctant to invoke ''City Slickers'' in this crossover context, I do wish she'd ''go and find her smile'' again -- which is to say, at least briefly reprise the sprightly power-pop of oldies like ''This Kiss'' and ''The Way You Love Me.'' The cheerful tone of those hits is a rarer commodity, when carried off successfully, than the emotional baggage-handling that fills ''Cry.'' But even when Hill's going therapeutic on us and getting down with the girls, she's easier on the eyes and ears than Dr. Phil. And that's something traditionalists and Top 40 programmers can agree on.