Sheryl Crow is not all that. She’s a vague, dull live performer, the recipient of far more adult-rock acclaim and success than her music deserves and, worst of all, not much of a singer. The actual content of her debut is among the least of the Missouri native’s cultural offenses. The result of a weekly Los Angeles songwriting get-together with David Baerwald and David Ricketts (aka David + David), Kevin Gilbert and producer Bill Bottrell, Tuesday Night Music Club (released in lieu of a previously completed debut Crow scrapped) is appealing if wishy-washy, a fussy studio undertaking that dresses strong emotions in the rustic hues of folky rock-pop. It’s a record Bonnie Raitt might have made had she never encountered the blues, or a John Hiatt outing filtered through a half-dozen different sensibilities. As the music meanders through digressions into atmospheric artiness (“Leaving Las Vegas”), John Lennonish declamation (“The Na-Na Song”), genteel funk (“Solidify”), Eagles country (“No One Said It Would Be Easy”) and Stealers Wheel party swing (“All I Wanna Do”), the collaborative songwriting likewise reflects various outlooks. “Strong Enough” is a quietly stirring search for one good man; “Run, Baby, Run” portrays a damaged daughter of politicos; “We Do What We Can” sketches out a life portrait of a horn-playing neighbor; “All I Wanna Do” adopts the role of a barfly to offer mindless encouragement of goodtime indulgence. Since each number was written by a different assortment of up to seven people, the lack of a singular artistic vision is no surprise, but it does counter the effectiveness of individual songs. Although the focus remains clearly on her singing, Crow doesn’t always seem like the star of the album. (Incidentally, the novel on which the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas was based predates Crow’s first album by several years.)
If her self-produced self-titled 1996 album was meant as a rebuke to the criticism that Crow is merely the face for a host of writers and producers, it makes a weak case. With bass-driven (and mildly funky) rock songs (“A Change,” “Sweet Rosalyn”) and the thoroughly annoying “If It Makes You Happy,” much of the record seems like a lesser rehash of “All I Wanna Do,” the biggest hit from Tuesday Night Music Club. The best track here is a Neil Finn collaboration (she opened for next-in-the-record-racks act Crowded House on her first national tour), “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” although the somber “Home” is also affecting. “Hard to Make a Stand” unabashedly borrows the bassline from “Sweet Jane.” Sheryl Crow did prove that Crow could write and record her own work, but it’s less engaging than the debut.
The Globe Sessions is solider, both on a song-by-song basis and as a cohesive statement. Still only a halfway decent singer, she uses her voice effectively (credit her own production skills, aided by engineer Trina Shoemaker and mixer Tchad Blake). “My Favorite Mistake” and “Anything but Down” are poppy adult suburban rock at its finest and among her best singles to date. Also to the album’s credit are “Mississippi,” an effective unreleased Dylan tune (!); the bouncy horn-driven “There Goes the Neighborhood” and the moody “Riverside.” Live From Central Park offers most of Crow’s biggest hits and a bunch of covers, with a cast of friends that includes Stevie Nicks, Sarah McLachlan, the Dixie Chicks, Keith Richards and one-time boyfriend Eric Clapton.
After The Globe Sessions, C’mon, C’mon is a letdown. Crow has repeatedly released an album’s most annoying track as a single, and “Steve McQueen” is this record’s exemplar, with its yelped chorus, sampled drums and boogie-rock backbeat. The title track and the ubiquitous “Soak Up the Sun” (which fooled more than one listener into thinking guest vocalist Liz Phair’s commercial triumph was happening a year before it actually did) are perfectly acceptable mainstream radio fodder, down to the latter’s idiotic opening lyrics: “My friend the communist / holds meetings in his R.V. / I can’t afford his gas / So I’m stuck here watching TV.”
The Very Best of Sheryl Crow is probably all the average fan would ever need, with the big hits, a fairly tender version of the Cat Stevens-via-Rod Stewart hit “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and a Kid Rock duet. It does overlook many of the one-offs she contributed to soundtracks and tribute albums (which include laughable covers of Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker”).