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Some Hearts
Artist: Carrie Underwood
Label: Arista Nashville

The reigning American Idol champ, Carrie Underwood, fancies herself a country singer. Seeing as AI is a franchise of what originated as a European show and that country is a uniquely American form with occasional acceptance into the international pop mainstream, Underwood's win is fitting as a reality show success story can be.

And success has come quickly for Underwood. At this writing, her debut album,_Some Hearts,_ has been certified double-platinum for shipping over two million copies; her Hershey's commercials, likely helped the chocolate company unload a slew of bars and T-shirts, too.

But note the labels releasing her album. Arista Nashville? It's the home of reliable neo-traditionalists such as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn, so cool enough. But 19? That's the imprint of _Idol_ impressario and judge Simon Cowell, notorious for his distaste for anything too raw nor rootsy. Remember that this is the same guy who has foisted the _Playgirl_ photo spread-meets-pop/classical hybrid of Il Divo upon the world. What more need be said of Cowell's erratic tastes?

Such circumstances beg the question of just how country Underwood is or wants to be on her first album after her Idolotrous win.

Uh, how about "kinda at best"? Hers is a better of a voice easily adaptable to a broad range of styles. That puts her in league with Martina McBride, Faith Hill, even Reba McIntyre, so she's already in good company.

Trouble is--and trouble was bound to come, yes?--that Underwood has to adapt to sounds decidedly out of the already wide pallet that comprises current commercial radio country. The album's titular number, "Lessons Learned" (warning: Diane Warren schlock ahead) and "That's Where It Is" sound more like offshoots from the template that launched Underwood's white girl predecessor winner on Fox's Neilsen ratings smash. It sounds as if her handlers hear more Kelly Clarkson in Underwood than may actually (nor should) be there.

When she does delve into a twangier repertoire, results are mixed. The single that has taken the top of county airplay charts and the Christian adult contemporary top 20, "Jesus Take The Wheel" is a muddled parallel between a real car wreck and a wreck of a life given over to the Almighty for the kind of repair a body shop can't provide. Goodness knows Underwood sells the lyrics, but there isn't much to sell. A more satisfying  Christian expression is "Don't Forget To Remember Me." Its trite title belies a tale of leaving home akin to The Wilkinsons' mid-'90s hit, "26 Cents."

Surprisingly, for someone whose public persona still exudes such naivete is that Underwood excels at songs of romantic intrigue, loss and wholesome exuberance. The diptych of "Before He Cheats" and "Starts With Goodbye" recall early Jamie O'Neal, if more overblown (and the line about Shania karaoke in the former is a right hoot). "We're Young and Beautiful" struts like Sara Evans with a Bo Diddley beat.

Underwood has some powerful pipes and is no hardship on the eyes (Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jacksaon wouldn't unleash an ug-hound on the public). Here's hoping she takes at least one cue from Clarkson and does more to commandeer her artisty to reflect a populism that doesn't sacrifice individuality. Nor a further degree of countryness. The next hope would be that Underwood has it in her to do so.

Jamie Lee Rake  2/6/2006



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