As conscious of the quick sell as anyone in today's music industry, Nashville's cadre of professional songsmiths have made phrase-crafting a science. From Josh Gracin's "Favorite State of Mind" to LeAnn Rimes' "Something's Gotta Give," Billboard's country singles charts read like little summaries of the artists' established emotional range. This dude's about havin' a good old time; that woman's forever on the bad end of love. It's the same thing in dance-pop, where the Hot 100 is dominated by broad allusions to romance highlighted with tired references to specific sex acts. Sean Paul asks Keyshia Cole when she's going to give it up to him — the assumption being that he has to work for it, like, you know, talk to her and stuff — while Chris Brown is more direct. His latest single, the blunt "Gimme That," suggests an emotional range that reaches all the way from his brain to the backseat of a Bentley.

At first, Julie Roberts' music would seem designed for the quick sell too. Promotional partners in the release of Men & Mascara, her second album for Mercury Nashville, include retail behemoth Wal-Mart and Clinique Cosmetics. (It really is a pop world — for Clinique, Roberts and dance-pop diva Rihanna will be the faces of a new fragrance called Happy, each performing a version of a jingle written by recent R&B sensation Ne-Yo. How's that for genre convergence?) And though she contributed to four of its tracks, the majority of Mascara was written by Nashville pros. But Roberts' talent as a singer and interpreter endures through the mess of applied marketing strategies, and she wins the battle for believability despite Mascara's occasional songwriting blandness and gilded-bauble production.

With her South Carolina-bred charm and White Rain Shampoo good looks, Roberts could be categorized as the next big pop-country thing, the understudy to Rimes or LeAnn Womack. But there's too much weariness in her voice, too much of Shelby Lynne's up-all-night scowl underneath the Faith Hill sheen. She makes the album's title track even better than its already terrific central phrase — "'Cause men and mascara always run" — because she delivers it with a wink and a rueful sigh, like she's resigned herself to the fact men will be idiots for as long as beauty maintenance is a chore.

"First to Never Know" is even better. A resetting of the archetypal country breakup number, Roberts rises to the chorus while detailing her destination options as a newly single woman, from Vegas to Dallas to the coast of Carolina. "Who knows where I'll go," she sings. "But when I find out, you'll be the first to never know." It's that same sense of resignation, and Roberts applies it with understated grace. We know the song's drama is manufactured — this is mainstream country, and it's as calculated as Top 40. But in Roberts' voice are flinty cues of anger, excitement and resentment at time wasted; she makes the storyline real, so much that we can see her at the travel plaza, studying a map that's spread out across her pickup's rusty hood.

Men & Mascara has its share of clichés, too, moments when even Roberts' interpretive spirit can't make the Music Row product shine. (A schmaltzy pop-country cover of Saving Jane's already irritating "Girl Next Door" is pure general-audience opportunism.) But she stitches most of her performances with the fiber of meaning, and that she can work from so deep within Nashville's big-money cowboy hat and still relate some true emotions — instead of coasting along on the superficial, phrase-based parameters — is even more admirable. When Roberts is at her best, you believe her. And that's unfakeable.


Sunday, July 23, at DTE Energy Music Theater, Clarkston; 248-645-6666, with Randy Travis.

Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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