Although Shania Twain came out of country music, her last two records have had plenty of pop (and little banjo and pedal steel) and the sound was a big hit with audiences, leading to global sales of 34 million for Twain's last album, 1997's Come on Over, which is also the fifth best-selling album of all time. It was, however, less of a hit with country music purists who questioned why Twain was even categorized as "country" -- Steve Earle's famous "highest-paid lap dancer in Nashville" comments come to mind.
So as Twain began working on her fourth record, she and husband/producer-genius Robert John "Mutt" Lange had quite a task ahead of them to surpass Come on Over while bearing in mind Twain's credibility issues with country music.
They came up with a pretty original plan: Release multiple versions of the songs, each re-recorded to appeal to country, pop, and international audiences. Hence, buyers in North America are getting the "green" country disc (Twain's said that's her favorite color) and the "red" pop disc while international audiences will receive red and a "blue" disc Twain has described as "more rhythmical with an Eastern influence". (Some songs from the blue disc are available for free downloading from Twain's website.)
She has been quick to point out, as she did in Country Weekly, "We have three authentic, re-recorded CDs with live musicians. There aren't any remixes." Moreover, Up! was recorded at a range of locations, including Ireland, Italy, India, and the Caribbean, apparently an additional way of establishing the albums' musical authenticity. (You'll notice, by the way, that Nashville's missing from the list of recording locations. . . .)
When opening Up!, the first thing of notice is a note from Shania explaining her rationale for including both discs. Here's an excerpt:
In meeting my audiences around the world during my last tour, I discovered something very exciting and liberating. My audiences consisted of an incredible variety of ages and nationalities. So while writing and recording Up! I felt a freedom to explore all of my different musical roots. Since I've always been comfortable writing and singing many styles of music from the earliest age, I wanted this CD to reflect that versatility. I didn't feel I could express and have all that fun in less than 19 songs and with only one CD. So, that's why there are two CDs included.
So far, the plan's working. As of mid-January, Up! had topped the country and pop charts for five consecutive weeks.
Certainly, Twain has certainly given consumers their money's worth, though, they're the same songs in the same order. At a time when record labels are consistently criticized for charging more for less music, Up!, at the price of a regular single CD, is two discs, each with 19 songs. That's a lot of music.
So how is Up!? As expected, it's got everything from dance numbers to ballads, and it's vintage Shania: If you liked Come on Over, you'll probably like Up!, which continues her signature big sound with its disco beat and perky grrrl-power lyrics ("She's Not Just a Pretty Face"; "Juanita": "Nah"; "Waiter! Bring Me Water"; "In My Car, I'll Be the Driver"; et. al.). "Ka-Ching!" stands out as different against the others with its Pink Floyd "Money" opening and lyrics criticizing greed (but given that they're being sung by one of the wealthiest musicians in the world who lives in a private mansion in Switzerland, one has to wonder . . .).
I listened to the record with Michael Masterson, a colleague who's a professor of music. We synchronized both versions on a stereo, flipping back and forth between green and red.
And the results of our research?
There aren't huge differences. Twain's voice is identical on both discs -- there is absolutely no change. The human voice is the ultimate musical tool, but here, her voice just fits into the background in which is it placed. As for the music, while the green disc has more fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel, the red disc relies more heavily on funk guitars, keyboards, and a string section. Both have the same big, thick textures built on a disco-techno rhythm section.
In the end, which is the stronger disc largely depends on whether the listener prefers a banjo or funk guitar as a backing instrument -- and even then, the instruments aren't that prominent in the mix. Despite all the fanfare, the differences between the records simply aren't that significant.
Permeating Up! is a sense of Twain trying -- desperately trying at all levels -- to touch everyone, to express universal truths by artificial means: beats, tempos, instruments, etc. But she never seems to realize that universality stems from people identifying with emotions, for art, at its best, touches on universal themes that transcend a mixing board -- pull out a Hank Williams or Emmylou Harris disc, and you'll hear the difference in about 30 seconds. But Twain's relentlessly positive and meticulously built songs miss that: This record isn't called Up! for nothing -- and there's even a smiley face drawn into the "U" of the album's title.
That's not to say that this isn't a well-put-together record: Clearly, it is. Up! has a good beat, and you can dance to it. . . .
The end result, Twain says, "is reminiscent of my youth when I used to listen to our local station and hear Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Supertramp and the Bee Gees all in the same hour". Up! is too generic and emotionless for that level of diversity, but in a very real sense, Twain has taken country music to its next level of popularity where country and pop are virtually indistinguishable.