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Album review: Carrie Underwood's 'Play On'

November 2, 2009 | 10:28 pm


If there's a slam-dunk aspect to Carrie Underwood's third album, it's that she's handed her "American Idol" benefactors a theme song for the next episode of "Idol Gives Back." That song is "Change," an exercise in social responsibility that challenges the listener to stay open to the possibility that a small gesture can make a big difference.

Underwood puts that idea across convincingly -- it's one that also would do wonders for her music. Unfortunately, there are no small gestures here. As on 2007's "Carnival Ride," Underwood and producer Mark Bright lunge for one climactic crescendo after another at the expense of vocal nuance, lyric subtlety and even aural clarity, thanks to the excessive sonic compression again applied to most tracks. 

Of course, the same formula has helped her sell more albums than any other "Idol" alum, but "Play On" exhibits a distressing lack of dimension for a singer with Underwood's obvious abilities.

There's another "Before He Cheats"-style tale of vengeance ("Songs Like This") and a red-flag warning about lowlifes in the album's first single ("Cowboy Casanova"). And can someone please institute a two-year moratorium on songs built on greeting-card philosophizing ("Temporary Home")?

That's one of seven songs Underwood gets lead co-writing credit on here, and while it's encouraging to see her more fully contributing to what she sings, it would be more rewarding if she'd explore less thoroughly trod ground, a problem that also hampers "Play On," which closes the album. 

It's an earnest, albeit cliché-heavy, stab at keep-your-chin-up encouragement: "You're gonna make mistakes / It's always worth the sacrifice."

Come to think of it, sounds like an ideal choice for the weekly exit music on the next season of "American Idol." 

-- Randy Lewis 

Carrie Underwood
Play On
19 Recordings/Arista Nashville
Two stars (Out of four)