Underwood sticks to her pop-star roots

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune
Published in the Chicago Tribune on October 21, 2007


It says something about a country album when the best song on it is a Randy Travis remake. It says it's not much of a country album.

Carrie Underwood's new "Carnival Ride," out on Tuesday, is 13 songs deep with Underwood's belting voice, slick pop production and even a handful of tunes co-written by the "American Idol" phenom. But it's the 1988 Travis hit "I Told You So" that feels decidedly countrier than the rest.

Underwood, 24, stays true to the song, a tender lesson in forgiveness, by letting the lyrics take the lead. Her voice, for once, takes a backseat to the song itself.

Which is why it stands out from the collection of crossover tunes on this album. At a time when artists are getting back to their country roots, it sounds like Underwood is sticking with the pop-star roots that brought her much-lauded success in 2005.

To that end, she co-wrote four of the songs on this CD, and packed them with emotional lyrics and shiny rhythms. Take away the fiddle, steel guitar and banjo, and this could be a Kelly Clarkson album.

And pop like this can rock. Take party song "Last Name." While Underwood has dated Dallas Cowboy Tony Romo and "Gossip Girl" star Chace Crawford, she seems an unlikely candidate for a one-night-stand song. But she pulls it off like a southern rocker, blaming Jose Cuervo for all her sins.

Another song she co-wrote, "Crazy Dreams," starts out as just a tween-queen autobiography, but ends up with an inspiring message for every hairbrush singer, dashboard drummer and air-guitar player.

Current single "So Small" (already No. 5 on the charts) has people putting problems into perspective. With a preachy message in the gospel groove, it's the Prozac of the album.

With more than 20 instruments listed in her liner notes, plus the 28 players that made up the Nashville String Machine, this effort brings in everything that keeps the music traditional while allowing it cross genre boundaries. That, fused with her vocals, makes for a solid album that transcends country.

Still, the odds are not on Underwood's side. Her debut album "Some Hearts" sold almost six million copies, but most country artists with an initial success like that never reach it again. "Carnival Ride" is good. But is it good enough, and country enough, to break her own record?

---------- ctc-tempo@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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