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THE CRITIC: Carrie Underwood ‘Plays On’ The Same Old Shtick

by Rudy Klapper 8 November 2009 185 views 2 Comments E-mail Rudy Klapper

Carrie Underwood - Play On

19/Arista Nashville 2009

Rating: 5/10


Many an American Idol winner has had difficulty transferring their success on the show to success on the Billboard charts, at least for any longer than a few months. Don’t tell that to country megastar Carrie Underwood, though; from multiple Grammys to multiple platinum records, Underwood has virtually dominated Nashville, and America, since 2005. Yet the Carrie Underwood of that Idol finale and the Carrie Underwood of late 2009 is, for better or worse, practically the same performer, a cheery, charming performer whose girl-next-door persona belies her talented pipes and ridiculously good looks. Still hitting the same notes, still achieving that equilibrium between country roots and mainstream pop, Play On is an apt title for Underwood’s third effort, an album that does little to stretch beyond what came before.

It’s not that what Underwood has done before is all that bad; on the contrary, some of her previous singles have been some of the best the genre has had to offer, and debut Some Hearts was an earnest, energetic record that, while shallow, was a pioneer of the new wave of country-pop records. Nowadays, though, her shtick is old news, and it’s been co-opted by artists like Taylor Swift, talents younger and more in-tune with contemporary audiences than the relatively old Underwood. When Underwood sings about heartbreak and cheating boyfriends on songs like “Cowboy Casanova” or belts out “my heart is bustin’ at the seams . . . life is short, love is sweet / ain’t no time like this time, baby” on “This Time,” it lacks the emotional honesty of her younger peers or, worse, comes off as contrived, lovesick longings.

That’s not to say Underwood has become totally irrelevant. She still owns one of the most powerful voices in the business, an irrefutable fact clear on barn-burners like “Songs Like This” or straightforward country ballads like “Someday.” Better yet, Underwood continues to embrace the pop side of the equation. While she will always be associated with Nashville and her voice continually supplies appropriate amounts of twang, the occasional fiddle or pedal steel guitar more often than not gives way to polished, slick pop in the best Swift tradition. Make no mistake about it, Underwood is a pop singer at heart; just check out the Max Martin product “Quitter,” where Underwood lets the upbeat tone and simple but pleasantly cute lyrics lead the way rather than overpowering a dainty little pop song. And “Cowboy Casanova,” for all its arena bombast and compressed-to-shit sound, continues the proud tradition of strong Underwood singles, largely on her charismatic performance.

Underwood does try to take a more proactive role in writing her own material here, but the results are more often than not disastrous. Compare a mellow ballad like “Look At Me,” which features a note-perfect harmony with Vince Gill, to some of Underwood’s efforts, like the cloying “Mama’s Song” or the boring “What Can I Say,” and it’s not tough to see that maybe Underwood should acquire some better co-writers. Too often does she fall for dead-in-the-water ballads that shine the light too brightly on her voice and try to turn her into a Carey-esque diva. A rough-and-tumble song like “Undo It,” on the other hand, tries too hard in the opposite direction, masking weak verses with a fiery chorus that singers like Jessie James are already doing better. Better that than the hackneyed tearjerkers that are “Change” and “Temporary Home,” though: lyrics about the kids-in-need commercials on TV and foster homes make one wish that the Idol Gives Back TV special was just a bad dream and artists didn’t give in to every maudlin, cliché-ridden “We Are The World“-type impulse.

Play On will sell well over a million, and “Cowboy Casanova” is surely only the first in a long line of successful singles for Underwood, and in it’s own way that’s a little sad. Despite her insistence to showcase her voice on sparse ballads that rely too heavily on her skills and not enough on her personality, Underwood is more than capable of creating the kind of resonant pop album that sticks around longer than it takes to cash the cheques. With such a fantastic voice and a dynamic identity begging to burst out from the Top 40 muck, it’s hard to see why she hasn’t made the next step - but then again, sales figures like hers laugh in the face of changing such a popular formula. Give it another couple of years, though, and the young ‘uns will be nipping at her heels. If Play On is any indication, some of them are already passing her by.

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  • Sarah said:

    I love Carrie! She’s great!

  • Hunter said:

    Well, I don’t about her music, but she sure is hot.

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