learly, Carrie Underwood can sing. If she couldn’t, she wouldn’t have won American Idol a mere six months ago. But being a good singer doesn’t automatically mean you can make a good album, cf. Celine Dion, or for that matter, Ruben Studdard. Country music is more demanding than pop when it comes to voices, however; whereas the pop world accepts that neither of the Simpson sisters can sing and says “Who cares?,” in country incredible singers can be found every night at the Bluebird and Tootsie’s in Nashville. If you’re actually lucky (or talented, but it’s often just dumb luck) enough to actually get a shot, you’d better hit it out of the park. There’s no TRL on CMT to show record execs that yes, in fact, you do have a following even though you might not be burning up Soundscan.
Shots don’t come much sweeter than winning American Idol, then—but Underwood’s the first champ to go country. Fortunately for her—and for us—she sinks every tooth she’s got into this opportunity, making an album that’s fairly mass-appeal while still fairly country, singing her ass off all over Some Hearts while the cream of Nashville’s studio musicians work it out behind her (and country superproducer Dann Huff sits behind the board). Did I mention that she’s been gifted a set of some fine songs, as well?
Some Hearts, in case you’re keeping track at home, is better than any album Faith Hill’s made this decade, speaking of mass-appeal country. It’s not as good as Shania’s body of work, but little is. Sure, it’s calculated—she won a friggin’ TV talent show, for pete’s sake. Calculated doesn’t necessarily equal “bad,” mind you; ever hear of Madonna?
It’s no surprise that Underwood’s bravura set piece on Idol was her version of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” as she’s got a comparably strong voice. The difference between them (well, the obvious one) is that where McBride’s always sounds as if it’s this close to breaking like crystal, Underwood’s seems to be made of stronger stock. Not only does she have lungs that don’t quit, but there’s a certain je ne sais asskicking quality to her voice that comes through much better on Some Hearts than it ever did on Idol. (The cynics in the audience could suggest that it’s due to studio trickery, and they could be right, though her performance on the CMA Awards would seem to belie that fact.)
The obvious touchstone for much of this album is a certain kind of “80’s Ladies” country: Juice Newton, K.T. Oslin, Janie Fricke. This is country with a gloss on it, but country much moreso than pop; heard in this context, even Underwood’s Idol single “Inside Your Heaven” sounds country. The title track of Some Hearts is clearly a pop-crossover move, but it works, with its ‘80s bombast (Pat Benatar could’ve sung this in between doling out asskickings) and Underwood’s supreme belting. (And doesn’t the title “Some Hearts” itself even sound like it’s of ‘80s vintage?)
“Jesus, Take the Wheel” nails that Christian-secular vibe in a way that only country seems to pull off (and in a way that Faith Hill used to be able to pull off, natch). On the same hand, I buy Underwood’s lies—no way is she throwing back the whiskey she alludes to in “Before He Cheats,” but she sells it. “The Night Before” is an aural cousin to Trisha Yearwood’s classic “She’s In Love with the Boy” and is all the better for it—and if Arista plays their cards right, that’s your #1 country smash right there.
Some Hearts has no damn right to be any good, but it’s the second consecutive album by an American Idol champ (step right up, Fantasia) crafted to accent its singer’s strengths and hide her faults and do so in expert focus group fashion without smacking of just that. This is musical comfort food, good ‘cause it’s familiar but also ‘cause it’s just plain good. Carrie Underwood (and Dann Huff), take a bow.