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.
"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.