Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Carrie Underwood - Blown Away [album review]

Released in May (part of a perpetually ongoing series of reviews covering older releases that "fell through the cracks")

I dislike most things about American Idol, but I've got to give the show credit for providing a career springboard to talented artists like Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Allison Iraheta, Kellie Pickler, and Carrie Underwood. Despite some massive success with her first three releases, I was fairly unfamiliar with Underwood's music until hearing the amazing "Remind Me", her duet with Brad Paisley on his This Is Country Music album from last year. Blown Away, her newest album, represents a definitive solidifying of my fandom of the Muskogee, Oklahoma-born artist, delivering an infectious collection of songs that show off Underwood's mighty vocal talents. 

After hearing Blown Away, I was quite surprised to hear Underwood say in an interview on CBC radio show Q earlier this year that she self-identified primarily as a country artist. Granted, most people would probably associate her first with that genre, but Blown Away leans far more in the direction of pop music, with only very light country touches throughout most of the album. The exceptions are "Do You Think About Me", a great stripped back number constructed of a bluegrass-style integration of acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordion, light percussive touches, and steel guitar, "Leave Love Alone", and "Cupid's Got A Shotgun". That last one - and this shouldn't come as much of a surprise based on the title - is a straight up honky tonk boot stomper featuring some blazing guitar work from Paisley. It and "Leave Love Alone" turned out to be two of the three tracks on Blown Away that I have no affinity for, which is more a reflection of my lack of interest in the old school country sound that they adhere to. Truthfully, I'm also a little bored with the habit of pop country artists including one or two obligatory "traditional" country-sounding songs on their albums. Acts I love, like Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Sugarland, and Dixie Chicks are also guilty of it...Shania too, back when she actually put out albums. Call me cynical (and many have), but it seems like somewhat of a shallow effort to maintain both country roots and credibility in the genre. Speaking of credibility, Blown Away's only other dud comes up way short in that department. The limp "One Way Ticket" follows another unfortunate trend from pop country artists: the laid back and reggae-inflected party song, as popularized by the likes of Jimmy Buffet and Kenny Chesney. 

Nearly everything else on Blown Away, however, is decidedly exceptional. The handclap-happy "Good Girl" turns up the rock guitars a little more than on the rest of the album and sure took its sweet time to grow on me. I didn't care for the feisty track at all for the first four or five months that I listened to the album on a regular basis and couldn't understand why one of the LP's seemingly weakest tracks had been picked as Blown Away's first single. Underwood really elevates the mood level on two of the album's standout songs: the title track spotlights Underwood's soaring vocals, telling the tale of a girl huddled in her basement and hoping a tornado raging overhead carries away her alcoholic and abusive father passed out on one of the upper floors; the similarly ominous "Two Black Cadillacs" finds a woman and her husband's mistress uniting to murder him. Between the song's potently illustrative lyrics, Underwood's pipes, and the sensational instrumental performances (highlighted by a lavish symphonic score and a drama-heightening coda), the end result is something spectacular. It's also interesting seeing the dichotomy of Underwood's public persona of a wholesome girl and devout Christian who literally peppers her interview conversations with words like "gosh", "golly", and "dang" offset against her willingness to explore some more dark and sinister subject matter, as was demonstrated earlier in her career on the hit "Before He Cheats". The evocative "Good In Goodbye" features some of Blown Away's strongest lyrics and is far better than its rather cloying title might suggest, as the track's protagonist is thrown off balance by running into an old flame and finds comfort in realizing that life worked out pretty well for the both of them ("But we both ended up where we belong/I guess goodbye made us strong...As bad as it was, yeah as bad as it hurt/I thank God I didn't get what I thought that I deserved"). The album's two closing tracks send things out on a very high note, with the ballad "Wine After Whiskey" and Who Are You" (not a cover of The Who's classic), a song that is as commercially safe a track as you'll ever hear, but mightily uplifting and tremendous just the same.

Rating: A-

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