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Review: Carrie Underwood plays on -- and it's OK

Hold on to something because the earth could skip a beat off its rotation. I come in praise of Carrie Underwood.

Regular readers might recall I've not exactly held the American Idol winner in high esteem since she won the show in 2005 over my pick, Bo Bice. She has since become the most successful Idol yet (or at least in shouting distance of Kelly Clarkson and that gap should probably close when sales of Carrie's third CD, Play On, are factored in soon.)

But here goes: Play On is not a bad album. It's not great, not even close. Carrie still lacks the interpretive skill to get deep into a lyric and convey warmth, understanding or nuance and her voice turns thin and gratingly reedy when she reaches for the high notes -- which is all too often. (Part of that problem could be attributed to the engineering on contemporary rock and country records these days which compresses everything into one flat sound and then boosts the volume's loudness until it distorts. For some strange reason no one has yet to explain properly, this has been producers' MO, perhaps to make their songs stand out on the radio or on mp3s, but for consumer CDs it yields aural fatigue).

 Good is stretching it, too, but compared to her wildly popular albums Some Hearts and Carnival Ride, Play On teases that there might be more to the robotic, remote persona than first glimpsed by millions on Idol.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the lovely Someday When I Stop Loving You. Never has Carrie sung with more thought as she does softly on this effective country ballad. She also harmonizes well with Vince Gill on the tender Look at Me and the vocal restraint is most welcome. Both of these songs soar clouds above her treacly hits Jesus Take the Wheel or this album's pandering lapses into awkward Idol Gives Back social commentary. Of those songs, Change frets about the hungry and Temporary Home finds Carrie worried about foster care, Change is the less cloying. Perhaps that's because it has a strong melodic hook to override the easy sentiment. 

Carrie also reclaims ground lost to Taylor Swift as the idol offers more infectious guilty pleasures this time out -- and, unlike Taylor, Carrie can sing more than two notes in tune. Carrie improves upon the Shania Twain formula on the pop-rock single Cowboy Casanova which works that Def Leppard stomp meets country flavor like a pro. She keeps us from missing Shania.

 "Guys like you are the reason for" Songs Like This also improves upon Carrie's spurned and revenge-seeking firebrand style of Before He Cheats and Last Name by upping the hook quotient and for being considerably more believable from a lyrical sense. And, in one instance when she does go for the money-notes, as on the pop/rock title track, she nails them in a song that sticks.

Given how successful she's been, there's little reason to mess with what has worked commercially. But for the few spots where Carrie gives tantalizing tidbits of becoming an artist actually worthy of approaching all the acclaim and awards she's received, the standout tracks on Play On helps the CD earn repeat rotation and makes the sure-bet of album number four in two years not quite such a worrisome thing after all.

Follow on Twitter @HowardCohen


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I understand what you mean by the sort of "reedy" quality of her upper-notes in studio recordings. I too think it has something to do with the overall compression of the track, because that quality is not as easily discernable in her live performances.

But I think it can also be attributed to the fact that she doesn't always give her notes sufficient breath support, which results in a nasal, semi-constricted tonal quality. That is because she's using too much THROAT where she should be supporting with her diaphragm. It's a placement/breath control issue.


nice! she HAS really grown and may be in time like Martina her idol and that is a good thing...She is paying her dues.


My all-time country idol favorite, Carrie Underwood!

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