At her worst, Sheryl Crow reminds me of my all-time least-favorite band, the Eagles, except she's a she, and in that case it makes all the difference in the world. An El Lay soft-rock chick at the bottom of her Kennett, Missouri, heart, when Crow regurgitates all those familiar romanticized road images and peaceful, easy feelings and wallows in the same kind of backstage, in-crowd vibe (guest appearances here from the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Nicks, and Gwyneth Paltrow!), at least she strips it all of the male chauvinism and casual misogyny that infect the Eagles' music. She lays the "Desperado" shtick on thick on the opening "Steve McQueen" (and, no, this is not the Drive-by Truckers' "Steve McQueen," for all five of you who are wondering), describing herself as an "all-American rebel" and a "freebird" and complaining, "All my heroes hit the highway," but the lyrics thankfully become more generic and less obtrusive after that.
When I'm able to ignore that her main pop function is to provide comfort food for classic-rock clingers who refuse to come to grips with the pop eruptions of the late '70s and who prefer the good old days before punk and disco and hip hop made everything so messy, I like Sheryl Crow. She's the kind of modest, down-to-earth gal who could sing a quintessential bit of Eagles post-hippie hedonism, Me-decade crap like "Lighten up while you still can/Don't even try to understand/Find a place to make your stand/And take it easy" and make me sing along rather than gag. And that's basically what she does on C'Mon, C'Mon's lead single, "Soak Up the Sun."
"Soak Up the Sun" is the most El Lay anthem in years, so laid back it makes Train sound as agitated as the Dead Kennedys. It's also the loveliest thing on the album, helped along by Special Guest Star Liz Phair, who only sings backup but whose sharp, understated style still dominates the song, inspiring dry vocals and crisp guitar lines the way the devil incarnate, Don Henley, encourages Crow to oversing shamelessly on the duet "It's So Easy" (Crow made the over-the-top vocals work on "If It Makes You Happy," but Henley pulls her toward Diane Warren/Celine Dion schmaltz here).
Elsewhere, Crow's best moments come when she forgoes the celeb backup, like on the title song, in which the novel 12-string acoustic lead makes it sound like an outtake from Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story (post-hippie roots rock of the gods), or the future radio hit "Hole in My Pocket," which updates Crow's sound all the way to, say, 1987. --Chris Herrington