CARRIE UNDERWOOD "Carnival Ride" (Arista) Grade: B
Carrie Underwood is a pretty girl with a pretty voice, singing pretty songs about, presumably, pretty people. And that makes the whole package - including her new album "Carnival Ride," like the multi-platinum, award-winning smash before it "Some Hearts" - all kinda nice, if predictable.
Unlike her fellow "American Idol" winners, Underwood feels no need to break away from the hit-making fold. In fact, she embraces it.
That means "Carnival Ride" goes down extraordinarily easy - lots of lush, inspirational ballads that make the most of her gorgeous voice and a handful of rock-tinged up-tempo numbers about getting out of town or following your dreams, where she channels the Dixie Chicks, without all that, you know, messy political stuff.
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"Carnival Ride" sticks incredibly close to the formula of "Some Hearts," which is the second-biggest selling album of the past two years. The glorious first single "So Small" could be "Jesus Take the Wheel (Part Deux)" - the installment where the once-desperate girl has learned her lessons and can now offer advice, including, "Sometimes that mountain you've been climbing is just a grain of sand." The fact that "So Small" takes so similar a path - from the tempo to the phrasing to the swell of strings - seems like a minor quibble, considering the stirring results.
However, after it happens time and time again, "Carnival Ride" starts to pick up an assembly-line feel that is only staved off by Underwood's standout delivery. She angles for a "Before He Cheats"-type pop crossover with "Last Name," right down to the plodding guitar. And "I Know You Won't" fills the role of big pop ballad "Inside Your Heaven."
Underwood does stretch a little, letting a bit of her sass shine through on "The More Boys I Meet," with some nice images of dating duds ("oversized pants with an ego to match") and the killer country hook of "The more boys I meet, the more I love my dog." There's some Coldplay to "Twisted" and some Miranda Lambert-styled spunk to "Get Out of This Town" and "All-American Girl," but only trace amounts.
It's hard to be this blank a slate for this long a time, but Underwood clearly works at it. She's trying to be a singer, not a personality - kind of refreshing, in a time when private lives so often triumph over public work. But as nice as "Carnival Ride" has turned out, Underwood will simply be going around in circles until she invests a little more of herself into the process.
ALSO IN STORES. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss blend folk and rock on "Raising Sand" (Rounder); Neil Young's "Chrome Dreams II" (Reprise); System of a Down singer Serj Tankian goes solo on "Elect the Dead" (Reprise); Depeche Mode singer David Gahan goes solo on "Hourglass" (Mute); Mya's R&B "Liberation" (Motown); Seether's radio-friendly modern rock "Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces" (Wind-Up); Coheed and Cambria's new-prog "No World for Tomorrow" (Columbia); Babyshambles' "Shotter's Nation" (Astralwerks); The Temptations tackle soul classics on "Back to Front" (New Door); and Cobra Starship's indie-dance anthems "Viva la Cobra" (Fueled by Ramen).
SONG OF THE WEEK. Keri Hilson may not be a household name just yet, even though she sings the hook on the Timbaland No. 1 "The Way I Are" (Mosley Music) and has co-written "Take Me as I Am" for Mary J. Blige and "Wait a Minute" for Pussycat Dolls. On her first single as the headliner, Hilson teams up with Justin Timberlake on a reworking of the LL Cool J hit "Headsprung" that puts a female twist on what was already a pretty fine song the first time around. It worked once, no reason it shouldn't work again.