When Carrie Underwood stood under the bright lights of the Kodak Theatre and heard Ryan Seacrest announce that she had proven victorious in season four of American Idol, Underwood became the Kelly Clarkson of the country world. Judge Simon Cowell even predicted, after a career defining performance of Heart’s Alone, Underwood would be the best-selling artist in Idol history.
Those who have followed Underwood’s career since her Idol win remember Underwood’s debut album Some Hearts spawned her two biggest hits, “Jesus, Take The Wheel” and her signature “Before He Cheats.” Both songs spent six plus weeks atop the Billboard Country chart and won Grammys for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Since her career high in 2007, Underwood has coasted along trying to duplicate her “Before He Cheats” success through subsequent hits “Last Name” and the lead single for her third album Play On, “Cowboy Casanova.” Both songs paint the lead male as vindictive and sly; needing the woman in their life to worn others about their existence. With each release she steers futher and further away from her country music roots.
I’ve always believed Underwood oversings her ballads; adding far too much power to tender moments. She goes for the big notes the same way a narcissist has a giant photograph of themselves on their wall — trying to show off in a flamboyant way. She hits the big notes with ease; but bombastic vocals aren’t the mark of a technical singer; knowing how best to craft the instrument at hand is the true mark.
It took until Play On, Underwood’s not-as-highly anticipated third release for her to finally move in the direction of toning down the egotistical vocals and give songs their justice. The addition of fiance Mike Fisher is mellowing Ms. Underwood but less isn’t necessarily more.
The opening track and first single, “Cowboy Casanova,” takes Underwood the furthest away from country she has ever gone. This slickly produced piece of pop/rock proves that the addition of banjo to a song is no longer a guarantee of country credentials. While sticking to her formula for portraying men as creatures that must be avoided no matter the cost, Underwood scored another radio hit and number one single. Problem is, the song created zero impact and will be forgotten long before the cheated girlfriend puts down her Louisville Slugger. All style over substance, the song has Underwood playing a character — issue is, she doesn’t play the part convincingly. Unfortunately, the embarrassing performance at the CMA Awards had people talking more about the wildly inappropriate hot pants than the vocal performance. I must have been mistaken – I always believed the CMA Awards to be a family show. Underwood must have forgotten that somewhere along the way.
Luckily, the rest of the album steps in the right direction – less production coupled with tone downed vocals. The problem is, Underwood has created good pop; but where is the country? For someone who has been awarded multiple Female Vocalist trophies from both the CMA and ACM it seems odd that Underwood would choose to walk a path that has her competing with the likes of Beyonce and Pink over Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire.
The closest Underwood comes to exercising her country muscle comes just moments after the closing of “Cowboy Casanova,” a song aptly titled “Quitter.” Easily the strongest track on the album, it flows with a gentle ease and proves that when Underwood sings a good song, the results are close to the kind of magic excused by the likes of McEntire or even Trisha Yearwood in their heyday.
With the exception of “Mama’s Song,” Underwood’s beautiful ode to her mom as she embarks on married life, and the catchy but clichéd “Undo It,” Underwood’s Play On is an unexciting and fatigued grouping of songs that wear out their welcome after multiple listenings.
Wost though is the tepid, “Songs Like This” which has drawn comparisons to the Dixie Chicks. Those comparisons are unfounded, even the Dixie Chicks are smarter than to record this mess. If “Quitter” is three steps forward for Underwood, “This” is ten steps back. Why Underwood feels the need to record yet another song painting the male gender as pigs, is a decision I will never understand.
Being male does not give me a bias here, a song is a song. This one just happens to be Underwood’s lowest recorded moment yet. The blame lays with Mark Bright, the producer of this album (and recent releases for Lonestar and Rascal Flatts), as much as with Underwood. He’s supposed guide her in the studio; leading her on the journey to a final recorded product, but the partnership is hard to be taken seriously when dribble like this marks their result. If she really feels it’s all about the song, than why not practice what she pretends to preach?
Underwood has proven in the past that with the right material, she makes magic. Recently, though, she’s been chasing the success “Before He Cheats” with sub par sequels to the Chris Tompkins/Josh Kear penned smash. Her recent hits don’t add up to anything and will be largely forgotten when history writes her legacy.
Just because a song hits #1 on the charts isn’t an indication of quality anymore which is sad. The problems with Underwood’s Play On actually exposes a larger problem with mainstream country music — tired clichés and overused themes that make country the most unoriginal genre currently viable in the market.
Carrie Underwood – and Country Music as a whole – need a facelift now more than ever