Sharps & Flats

Tina Turner moves into house; Wynonna dives under the covers.

Published February 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Pop music has always resided at two extremes -- glib, substance-free tunes that preach bliss and ignorance vs. pained confessions that celebrate the triumph of the will in the face of adversity. Of the two groups, the latter is more potent and has greater staying power across generations. It's those singers -- Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits -- who etch themselves into memory, as others' curves peter out to nothingness.

Tina Turner and Wynonna Judd are two women who've known pain, who've built entire careers out of anguish. Turner's violent marriage to R&B producer Ike is the stuff of myth, and Wynonna -- who uses the more diva-esque single name now -- survived the breakup of a massively popular partnership with her mother and suffered a recent divorce.

Yet while Wynonna's pain may still be fresh, her music as a soloist lacks some of the fire she shared with her mother, particularly on their later albums. Now on her fifth album without Mom, she's covering Joni Mitchell, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Macy Gray. With records of songs written for her largely flopping, she's trying to capture the heat of others. But "Tuff Enuff," her Thunderbirds rip, is far from it, and she can only fantasize about Gray's elegant scrapes on "I Can't Wait to Meet You.

The more emotive Wynonna stops more or less there. Apart from a slightly conflagratory turn on "Lost Without You," the straight-ahead country tracks lack passion, depth and meaning. Even when she starts out strong, lamenting the "end of the night and my money's spent/Gotta hock my clothes to pay my rent" on the title track, she's undermined by glaringly ineffectual production that renders banal verses even more so.

You get the sense that Wynonna's reaching for something more than anodyne, while Turner, living quite peacefully in Sweden (thank you very much), no longer has such ambitions. Turner's most exciting solo work came in the early-to-mid '80s when, regenerated by a new deal with Capitol Records, she strutted back onto the Billboard charts with "Private Dancer," spawning the title-track hit, a dark, mysterious song on which Turner's tightly squeezed vocals convey anguish and disaffection in equal measure. Turner wasn't so generous on "What's Love Got to Do With It," the redemption song par excellence for women in their 30s with love pains.

Yet as life slows down, so go the wounds. The aggressive, sexy vocal rasp that marked her earlier work is now transformed with age into a balmy contralto that rarely challenges her range. Only on "Go Ahead" does her defiance stand out, quietly wailing on the chorus, "Why don't you go ahead and tear my heart out?/Why don't you go ahead and hang me out to dry?/Go ahead and play your game/Go ahead and smear my name all over your blood red sky."

Casual fans will doubtless want more of those passionate sparks, but theyll be hard pressed to find them amid the questionable musical choices. "Falling" is a cheesy G-funk-inspired ballad and the title track approximates an electro-honky-tonk vibe. Oddest of all, "When the Heartache Is Over" is a sleek Europop affair -- courtesy of the production team that delivered Cher's "Believe" -- that thoroughly undermines Turner's presence with narrow-minded faux house music. It's a far fall for the diva, but the kids in the clubs where they play this kind of single are far more concerned with their own pain than hers.

By Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

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