They don't make 'em meek in Oklahoma, and Carrie Underwood sure proved that at first, launching into overnight fame with considerable Sooner grit. Yes, she was an American Idol champ, and yes she smiled and sparkled like a shiny Disney princess. But the girl could holler, and her breakout singles, Jesus, Take the Wheel and Before He Cheats, were bold in their own heavenly and hell-on-wheels ways.
But after her initial surge of popularity, Underwood started playing it safe and safer on her records. Her fourth album, Blown Away, released today, continues the 29-year-old's wishy-washy ways. That's too bad, as fellow country blond Miranda Lambert has thrived commercially and critically by embracing a leather-first, lace-later approach. Lambert is a real artist; Underwood now exhibits all the authenticity of a Barbie doll.
Cliche pleadings for lost love dominate Blown Away, which sounds a lot more Hollywood safe than Nashville tough. Some cuts don't try to be vaguely Southern at all; with its generic synth washes, whoa-ing backing vocals and absolutely zero soul, the overproduced See You Again could have been a giant hit for Celine Dion in 1993.
Underwood co-wrote several of the new cuts, and she gets some songwriting help from usually reliable pens (Hillary Lindsey, One Republic's Ryan Tedder), but no one has much to say. If the handclap-rock of so-so Good Girl is your top option for a first single, you know you're in trouble. Even Mutt Lange, Shania Twain's ex-hubby and former producer of AC/DC and Def Leppard, contributes a track to the LP, but Who Are You flounders in a borderline middle range — perfect for Shania actually, but not doing anything for Carrie.
Instead of developing Underwood's Okie bona fides — a gorgeous girl with a big voice and the moxie to sing about the Lord and keying a cheating boyfriend's four-wheel drive — a couple songs settle for blatant mimicry. Thank God for Hometowns is a cloying knockoff of Lambert's far superior The House That Built Me. And the faux-reggae carpe diem of One Way Ticket ("Life is like a ride on a party bus / Turn the radio up and sing along with it") is a really bad, and downright laughable, Kenny Chesney impression.
There are a few nice moments among the 14 tracks. Cupid's Got a Shotgun sounds like a Gretchen Wilson B-side, but it's dumb sing-along fun. The stomping blues of Leave Love Alone gets loud and angry, like a impromptu jam that allows Underwood to cut loose. And Good in Goodbye, a cutthroat ballad about a past love, is poised to be a monster hit, as a fully invested Underwood sings the ever-lovin' heck out of it.
For the most part, though, the talented singer induces another yawn. But I guess there's just too much money to be made with blah love songs for her to change things up now. Still, whenever I hear another disappointing Underwood album, I think of her live shows, specifically those encore moments when she covers, lo and behold, Guns N' Roses. There's an edgy rocker, a real person, under that princess dress. And if all goes well, one of these days, she really will blow us away.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.