Olivia Newton-John’s prospects began to unravel as soon as she imagined Grease as a psychic road map for her own career. So good thing LeAnn Rimes had a surrogate actress playing out her reverse-Sweet Home Alabama fantasies, lest she figure Coyote Ugly to be a documentary. That film’s centerpiece, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” might have been the fourth-best song on an ’80s Laura Branigan album, yet it repositioned Rimes, a reformed pubescent Pasty Cline reincarnation, alongside the lascivious image of Maxim cover girls cavorting for the crowd, PG-13 style, at a rowdy downtown bar.
Rimes being a sturdy Mississippi girl, her gyrating was limited to a closing cameo where she struts through the song her on-screen alter ego spent the entire film pouring her soul out to write—oops, sorry for spoiling the end. It was the ideal setup for a universe where any glory American Idol champ Kelly Clarkson is under the Simon Cowell-induced delusion could be ahead of her was already traversed by Sheena Easton a couple decades ago.
It’s not like LeAnn wasn’t yodeling out loud for Prince’s sugar-walled intervention when she pounced upon “Purple Rain” in 1988; consider that this is the same artist who, at age 14, broke the bank with an album called Unchained Melody: The Early Years, packaged like a tacky bargain-bin disc assembled by an exploitative ex-manager—who, at that age, is most likely to be your dad as well. From there, we get the emancipation subplot that takes us, within the space of five years, from You Light Up My Life—Inspirational Songs to Rimes sporting a dozen flavas of lingerie in the booklet for Twisted Angel. All young marrieds are doing boudoir photography these days, y’know.
But then, Mike Curb isn’t seeking to groom the next Neko Case. It’s more a matter of filling the niche left by Christina Aguilera’s decision to skank out. Whether or not the rhythmic similarities of Rimes’s assertive chug-a-lug single “Life Goes On” to Nick Carter’s bewildered “Help Me” were written in the stars, she’s handily won said derby on pop radio. Maybe it’s the result of sharing Coyote Ugly soundtrack album space with EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Snap!’s “The Power”—to say nothing of “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”—but Twisted Angel is an early-early-’90s throwback in the vein of Taylor Dayne, when the pop agenda demanded a product solid enough to spin off two years of singles. It’s also a more gratifying listen than any Mariah compilation you could burn.
Sure, the hip-hop inflections are pure aerobics studio stuff. “Tic Toc” is Rimes’s attempt at a “Je T’Aime,” and comes off nowhere near as preposterous as a post-adolescence Debbie Gibson yanking such a chain, since this is a woman with a husband after all. Same goes for the languid “Review My Kisses,” irresistible because Faith Hill is too damn old to get away with such submissive expressions. Never mind that “Suddenly” is but a sumptuous uptempo rewrite of an ancient Billy Ocean ballad—at least in “Damn,” when Rimes devotes three and a half minutes to ruminating over the meaning of the title, her pronunciation is devoid of any Sophie B. Hawkins-like exasperation. It might also be the only country-styled moment on the album.
The terrific streak of tracks culminates in “You Made Me Find Myself,” a throwback to when Rimes sounded mighty precocious crooning “How Do I Live”—even if LeAnn’s was packaged as a gospel number, the concurrent Trisha Yearwood version packed enough carnal longing to assert otherwise. Now, when Rimes is belting out “I used to breathe you/I used to need you/I used to hang on every word that you say,” one is prompted to reach for the liner notes to check if God is still first on her thank-you list. ([S]he is.) Dad and hubby are there, too, but if Twisted Angel mastermind Desmond Child swung that way, maybe he’d be best to appraise Rimes’s smooching skills—his production on the Kelly Clarkson single can’t hold a scented candle to this.
Then again, Rimes didn’t cut her teeth on microwaved Aretha Franklin remakes; she was smothering herself in “Me and Bobby McGee” before she was old enough to vote. Twisted Angel‘s album-closing title tune is a barn burner where LeAnn, born in 1982, boasts of how Daddy brought her up on the Rolling Stones—hey, “Harlem Shuffle” and “Mixed Emotions” were bound to influence someone someday. Just call her angel of the morning after the night before.