Album Review: Carrie Underwood – Play On
Reality-show prodigy turned down-home diva, Carrie Underwood has earned little critical praise despite moving over 10 million albums since her 2005 American Idol win. Nashville’s now the stomping ground for ‘80s pop-rock refugees, and Underwood’s widely viewed as a key cog in the nouveau Music Row machine–with high-minded traditionalists blanching at her country bona fides.
Despite her scratchy connection with country’s yesteryear, Underwood’s racked up a laundry list of industry honors with just two albums under her belt buckle, a reward for her gentle, tuneful voice and wholesome brand of straight-ahead twang pop. Her third disc, Play On, starts promisingly, with a whiff of boozy, barroom novelty. The playful “Cowboy Casanova,” an ode to a hard-to-keep lothario, plows along to a grungy electric guitar laced with a curling pedal steel line. This all-American girl, it seems, means serious business.
The remaining 45 minutes, though, are more Hallmark than honky tonk. Play On is a tastefully-done pop pleasure, with little of the pretentious production that gutted much of her first two discs. Better still, Underwood’s found new creases in her sweetly-Southern voice, an engaging instrument that’s grown with each album. She’s in a cheerful frame of mind these days, too: the joy she’s found in her budding romance with hockey star Mike Fisher makes the tender-hearted love songs sound like gossip night with the girls.
At her best, Underwood excels at handling the finest storytelling that Nashville has to offer. The album’s strongest track is “Someday When I Stop Loving You,” a brooding tune framed beautifully by her delicate performance, while “What Can I Say,” a collaboration with sibling trio Sons of Sylvia, is a simple, elegant declaration of longing. And the all-American girl even delivers a tart-tongued reading of the spunky, Shania-esque “Songs Like This.”
Play On, though, leans heavily on the polish of Underwood’s still-golden pipes. Too often she’s trying to outact a bad script, with a heap of platonic platitudes laid out over these sleek, bright rhythms. Underwood co-wrote seven of the thirteen cuts, and she clogs songs with stale ideas that dent the impact of her soaring soprano. Given the chief hooks of “Undo It” (a severely-processed uptempo romp) and “Unapologize” (a nice slice of swirling pop-rock), it’s a mild shock that Diane Warren doesn’t rest among the whopping twenty-five songwriters listed in the credits. Treacly anthems like “Change” and the title cut are a killjoy, too: “The smallest thing can make all the difference,” she swears on the former, aping her #1 smash, “So Small.”
Few singers could save insipid statements like “Play on, when you’re the losing the game,” and Underwood scrapes through by the skin of her teeth. Further, her hired guns hand her no favors; successful pop-rock collaborators, chief among them Idol judge Kara DioGuardi and Swedish hooksmith Max Martin, contribute little to an often-dull conversation.
No matter, as Play On will plant itself firmly atop the charts for months to come, and Underwood’s warbling saves a good deal of the dreck. With the herd of hard-charging teens now drenching the airwaves, it’s hard to believe that Underwood’s only 26. Near the top ranks of mainstream music for four years running, the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year has long proven to be an unstoppable force. Play On, though saddled with its share of loose songwriting, is a convincing reminder of a blonde, budding talent.
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