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"Come On Over' widens country chanteuse's repertoire

Only three women in history have sold more than 12-million copies of a single album. Two of them may be fairly obvious: Whitney Houston and Alanis Morissette. The third might be a tougher guess. She's Shania Twain, the country upstart whose The Woman in Me shot her from bar band obscurity to overnight stardom two years ago.

Twain reached that rarefied plateau thanks to an album produced by her husband, Robert "Mutt" Lange, who had previously worked with the Cars, AC/DC and Def Leppard. Together they made the country-rock album that spun off the hits Any Man of Mine and Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? while reaching a vast demographic.

"We just took a stab in the dark, followed our instincts, and it worked out. I think there was something on that album for everybody," Twain said recently from her home near Lake Placid, N.Y., where she and Lange share 3,000 acres far from the record industry's power centers.

With soaring confidence, she returns with a follow-up disc, Come on Over, which was released Tuesday. It retains the sassy, free-spirited rock flavor of the last disc, while adding new dimensions _ namely, two socially conscious tracks about the abuse of women. One song is explained by the title: If You Want to Touch Her, Ask. The other, Black Eyes, Blue Tears, has the frank verse, "I'd rather die standing than live on my knees, begging please." It ends, however, with the hopeful line, "Find your self-esteem and be forever free to dream."

Expressing a social conscience is not totally new for Twain, whose last CD, while mostly playful in tone, included the poignant God Bless the Child (her own composition, not the Billie Holiday classic). That song was inspired by her early adulthood, when she had to take care of three young siblings after their parents were killed in a collision with a logging truck near their home in Ontario.

"It's hard to keep a balance," she said of the extremes of her repertoire. "But I try to do that _ and this new album probably does it more than anything I've done."

The album, her third, also has a newfound maturity in its love songs. In You've Got a Way and the elegant Still the One, which marries a country mandolin to a churchy organ reminiscent of Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, Twain attains a deeper soul than on her last disc.

These new love songs are a tribute to her marriage, which some gossip columnists have said is in trouble.

"Mutt and I are an unlikely pair," said Twain, 32, who is more than a decade younger than her husband. "There's been talk in the tabloids that we're divorcing, but we are very happy. We love each other in every way. We have a great creative relationship and a great personal relationship. We feel as strong as ever _ and Still the One is sort of my own personal victory song about the marriage."

As to how the two share their craft, Twain tends to write the lyrics and Lange the music. He is ingenious at slipping in riffs from the rock acts that he's worked with. Honey, I'm Home has a riff recalling Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me, while Rock This Country has a rhythm echoing the Cars.

While Twain shows ample growth on the new CD, she still colors it with a hedonism that marked her last bestseller. Examples are Man, I Feel Like a Woman ("I ain't gonna act politically correct, I just want to have a good time"), and That Don't Impress Me Much, a Mary Chapin Carpenter-style rocker in which she cracks, "You're a regular, original know-it-all. . . . So you got the brains, but do you got the touch?"

However, don't let these songs mislead you. "I don't even drink," she said. "But I definitely do have a spunk and a cheer for life that I enjoy mostly through my music."

Twain is also looking forward to her first major tour once the album builds momentum. "I'd like to aim for a spring tour. Part of the reason I didn't tour on the last album was that I knew what it could be like if you have the right lights and the right sound and the right production. And I didn't want to do a show unless I could reach a standard I had set for myself. But I'm ready now."