It's hard to put down Melissa Etheridge without feeling a pang of guilt. She seems so nice and down-to-earth in all those VH1 concert and interview clips, for one thing. And she delivers her melodramatic, cliché-ridden songs with genuine conviction. As overwrought as her tough-but-vulnerable-rock-mama shtick may be, Etheridge could never be called unctuous. Michael Bolton is unctuous. Etheridge is ... well, earnest. Painfully, relentlessly earnest. Hysterically earnest, even.
On her fifth album, Etheridge shows no sign of lightening her touch. Your Little Secret was co-produced by pop veteran Hugh Padgham, who also lent his knack for pristine bombast to Etheridge's multiplatinum 1993 album, Yes I Am. There are moments of restraint but rarely of subtlety; almost every quiet passage is a predictable set-up for a grand crescendo or sudden explosion. On such adrenalin-packed rockers as "I Really Like You" and "I Could Have Been You," Etheridge sings the verses like she's got her guts caught in her throat. And then she belts out the choruses like she's throwing them up.
Etheridge's favorite theme is still romantic obsession, and her lyrics continue to accommodate her vocal histrionics. To judge from a lot of her songs, she vìews relationships chiefly in terms of seduction and betrayal. On the driving title track she accuses her lover of being unfaithful, while on "I Want to Come Over" and the briskly syncopated "An Unusual Kiss," Etheridge becomes the predator wooing someone else's flame. Two relatively gentle, lyrical numbers, "Nowhere to Go" and "All the Way to Heaven," invoke feelings and images that transcend simple lust. Even here, though, her immediate goal is to get the object of her desire in the seat of a car and get busy.
The best and bravest song on Your Little Secret is "Shriner's Park." On this graceful, forthright ballad, Etheridge seems to recall her own sexual awakening. Reminiscing about her first true love and reaching out to a woman who has been pressured to hide in the proverbial closet, Etheridge sings with great tenderness. "Shriner's Park" reveals the raspy-sweet potency of her voice and the intensity of her emotions in a gradual, unforced flow. In this context Etheridge's earnestness works and sounds extremely sensuous. The little secret here is one Melissa Etheridge should get hip to: You don't have to get all hot and bothered to generate real heat. (RS 722)
(Posted: Nov 30, 1995)
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