As on the best Pretenders recordings, there are subtle special effects and background vocals that reveal themselves and hook you in after repeated listenings. One sour spot: "I'll Stand by You" starts off as an intimate pledge from Chrissie to her man, but collapses when a choir lines up behind her like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to scare the poor guy off. Steinberg and Kelly sold their song "True Colors" to Kodak, but you can bet Hynde's co-writing credit will prevent this anthem from ever becoming a jingle for Prudential.

Rodney Crowell
Let the Picture Paint Itself
(MCA)

In Crowell's inaugural effort for MCA and his first album since Life Is Messy--a morose whine fest that followed his noisy divorce from Rosanne Cash--the veteran Texas singer-songwriter attempts to resurrect a stellar career. That career includes a Grammy for "After All This Time" from 1988's monster Diamonds and Dirt, plus the penning of such songs as Waylon Jennings' "Ain't Livin' Long Like This," Crystal Gayle's "Till I Gain Control Again" and Bob Seger's "Shame on the Moon." Yes, Crowell's credits are as long as his legendary temper is short.

Yet while this particular collection shows flashes of the Crowell of old, it is neither the "positive" work his publicists are eager to portray it to be nor the full-bodied artistry we're used to hearing from the man. Let the Picture Paint Itself is, however, a creditable effort for an artist undergoing a tough transition.

Crowell credits fellow Texan and living Austin legend Guy Clark for priming his pump again, and the pair of co-written tracks--the upbeat "Rose of Memphis" and "Stuff That Works"--are the prime pieces of the album. The latter especially shines, featuring super studio stud Paul Franklin's pedal steel and lyrics that seem to betray Crowell's supposed new happy-go-lucky, que sera, sera world view:

There's a woman I love, she's crazy and she paints like God,
She's got a playground sense of justice and she don't give odds,
I've got a tattoo with her name right through my soul,
I think everything she touches turns to gold.

The reference is clearly biographical--Rosanne Cash sought postdivorce solace by setting up an easel in a Big Apple loft--and forces us to listen askance to the balance of the work, especially "The Best Years of Our Lives" (with Patty Loveless) and the danceable, thoroughly featherweight, first-single title track.

In fact, Let the Picture Paint Itself simply isn't the light-of-heart, forward-thinking work Crowell's spin doctors purport it to be. But it is a significant move away from the gloomy Life Is Messy, and a large leap toward a musical recovery. If Let the Picture Paint Itself is uneven--and it is--we can understand, and we'll just be patient. We know what this guy is capable of.

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