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Jessica Andrews
Heart Shaped World
Dreamworks

Look out, world, heart-shaped or not. Here comes 15-year-old Jessica Andrews, playing the Nashville Tiffany part to Britney Spears's turn as Debbie Gibson. Blessed with physical attributes sure to ignite fantasies in high school football players and potential pedophiles everywhere, Andrews is a shoe-in to grace the covers of country music fanzines all over the U.S. of A. this year. After having been introduced to the public via the recent soundtrack spin-off The Prince of Egypt - Nashville (on which she appeared as the only nonestablished artist), the Tennessee native has just released her debut album, Heart Shaped World, a 12-song collection that is not only disposable but practically biodegradable.

The record is yet another example of contemporary country musicians failing to create music that actually sounds country. If it weren't for Andrews's Southern vocal inflection (reinforced by the mandatory four layers of vocal harmonies) and the occasional appearance of a lap steel guitar or fiddle, these songs could very easily be confused with the work of such pop-rock icons as Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne or Meredith Brooks. Consider the song "I Do Now," which begins with the exact same drum-machine thud used to introduce "In the Air Tonight," by Phil Collins. Or perhaps note the repeat appearance of the same melodramatic chorus effect used on guitars in hit power-ballads by such bands as Cinderella and Def Leppard (whose chief collaborative songwriter actually contributes a song to the mix). To answer your question, Willie: No, I don't think Hank did it this way.

The track sequence follows the same tired formula used time and again by producers to ensure the listener is never given to emotional favoritism. For every two rockers, one ballad must be inserted to adjust the adrenaline levels back down to nil. While this is predictable, it certainly is handy, as Andrews gets libidos in a frenzy with tawdry sex tales of a teen couple's first kiss ("You Go First"), dates nearly involving skinny-dipping ("The Riverside") and one track summed up with the title "Hungry Love." Is it hot in here or is it just me?

Making sure not to ignore her natural tendency toward teenage rebellion, Andrews gets those fists pumping with the hell-raiser "James Dean in Tennessee," the story of a chain-smoking stud who fights for his dreams in a fashion not unlike Kevin Bacon's struggle for First Amendment rights in Footloose. More angst appears in the anthem "Whatever," in which a woman tires of her beau's empty promises and (gasp!) walks out the door. Incidentally, Andrews admits in her publicity text that this song's concept was realized in a Waffle House restaurant, which is perhaps the most country thing about this recording.

While listening to Heart Shaped World, I found that my thoughts repeatedly returned to the late comic Bill Hicks and his observations on the Debbie Gibson phenomenon. When did we start listening to prepubescent white girls? We have at our fingertips the greatest minds of all time but, no, what's that little white girl sayin'? The thing is, it doesn't matter what she's saying. What essentially matters is how her body looks draped over a Volkswagen in publicity shots. It matters how well the age gimmick infiltrates listener demographics. It matters if she can generate a fraction of the revenue LeAnn Rimes has. Because if what she was saying mattered, the answer would be the same now as it was ten years ago, perhaps with a slightly different emphasis: not much.

-- David Wilcox

Lila McCann
Something in the Air
Asylum Records

There's definitely something in the air, all right. Whatever it is has record-label folk and Kmart shoppers butting heads for the latest Buffy in bikini briefs. But unlike conservative criticism against, 17-year-old Lila McCann is here to make a valiant argument for. And why not? She has some semblance of talent, a nice smile and the brunt of Nashville behind her. So even if you can't stay awake long enough to endure this tearfully boring record, you could probably hear enough in five seconds to see why others could. Endure this record, that is.

Like her elder C&W contemporaries -- Shania "Twit," the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill -- McCann mostly makes records about (what else) boy-girl relationships. Since country-western folk apparently are the only demographic to experience achy-breaky heartache, the theme of Something fits the tear-in-my-root-beer cliche perfectly. Romantics will just suck this up. How in the hell a teenager knows anything about adult relationships is anyone's guess. But how industry types can present this "music" as something other than what it is (i.e., genius marketing that rivals that of one of the best pop bands of all time, Milli Vanilli) is more awe-inspiring altogether.

One can't watch TV or cruise record aisles without seeing at least one prepubescent babe in lip gloss squeezing her underdeveloped breasts together a la Tyra Banks. Britney Spears, Monica and Brandy et al. are becoming marquee acts. And high returns are as certain as sunrise. In one particular week last month, Billboard's Top 10 featured six songs performed by artists or groups whose median age was under 21 -- four of the songs were by girls too young or barely old enough to buy cigarettes. Compare those stats with Billboard's Top 10 of five years ago -- when no songs were performed by young folk -- and the beginnings of a trend, a potentially hot boilerplate issue, become apparent.

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