19 Recordings/Arista Nashville
If there's a slam-dunk aspect to Carrie Underwood's third album, it's that she's handed her "American Idol" benefactors a theme song for the next episode of "Idol Gives Back." That song is "Change," an exercise in social responsibility that challenges the listener to stay open to the possibility that a small gesture can make a big difference.
Underwood puts that idea across convincingly -- it's one that also would do wonders for her music. Unfortunately, there are no small gestures here. As on 2007's "Carnival Ride," Underwood and producer Mark Bright lunge for one climactic crescendo after another at the expense of vocal nuance, lyric subtlety and even aural clarity, thanks to the excessive sonic compression again applied to most tracks.
Of course, the same formula has helped her sell more albums than any other "Idol" alum, but "Play On" exhibits a distressing lack of dimension for a singer with Underwood's obvious abilities.
There's another "Before He Cheats"-style tale of vengeance ("Songs Like This") and a red-flag warning about lowlifes in the album's first single ("Cowboy Casanova"). And can someone please institute a two-year moratorium on songs built on greeting-card philosophizing ("Temporary Home")?
That's one of seven songs Underwood gets lead co-writing credit on here, and while it's encouraging to see her more fully contributing to what she sings, it would be more rewarding if she'd explore less thoroughly trod ground, a problem that also hampers "Play On," which closes the album.
It's an earnest, albeit cliche-heavy, stab at keep-your-chin-up encouragement: "You're gonna make mistakes / It's always worth the sacrifice."
Come to think of it, sounds like an ideal choice for the weekly exit music on the next season of "American Idol."
-- Randy Lewis
A 'Balm' for what ails you
Rickie Lee Jones
Balm in Gilead
* * * 1/2
This is a big year for Rickie Lee Jones: It's the 30th anniversary of the release of her self-titled debut album, which won her critical acclaim and the title of the Next Big Thing singer-songwriter. It's also the year that her daughter, Charlotte Rose, turns 21, a milestone she celebrates in her new album's opening track, "Wild Girl." It's a love letter to her offspring that also plays out like a reflection on her own youth.
These anniversaries feed the sense that Jones is assessing her place in life as she's on the cusp of turning 55. The 10 songs course through the highs and lows with equanimity, from the pride and hope in Charlotte she expresses to the kindheartedness she displays for those acquaintances who've moved on ("Old Enough," "Bonfires").
Spirituality plays a big role here, in the shimmering textures of "His Jeweled Floor," her yearning for understanding in "The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith" and the ethereal poetry of "Eucalyptus Trail." Musically she also seems to be surveying the various styles she's explored over the years, leaning toward soul and gospel but returning to the purebred folk tradition in "Bonfires" with its finger-picked acoustic guitar backing.
Jones arrives at acceptance, if not always approval, of the complexities of life as an adult. ("Well it's hard to be older and poor / I don't dig it that much anymore" she sings in "Wild Girl"). But by the closing track, "Bayless St.," a reverie clothed in old-timey dobro, mandolin and slide guitar, she has found the peace in acceptance -- the spiritual balm for which the biblical land of Gilead was famous.
-- Randy Lewis
In pursuit of mindless fun
To those taken aback by Rivers Cuomo's newfound embrace of songs about slaying honeys in the club while downing Patron shots on "Raditude," he has this to say to you -- "If you was me honey, you would do it too."
Grammar aside, there's a real kernel of truth to this lyric. Name any neurotic, lovelorn bedroom rocker who, upon achieving unlikely arena-filling status, wouldn't take full advantage of having Lil Wayne on speed dial, as evidenced by the rapper's cameo (Weezer and Weezy, get it?) on "Can't Stop Partying."
The weird aftertaste of "Raditude" isn't that Cuomo has so surrendered the oddball charm of his band's first two albums, though. It's that his late-career pursuit of mindless, opulent fun is so transparent that it almost taps a deeper vein of interior sadness than anything on "Pinkerton." Imagine a kind of "Sunset Blvd." set amid the stuccoed wreckage of post-'90s KROQ stardom.
Cuomo still turns out more functional hooks before his breakfast tequila than most bands get in a career. "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" and "Put Me Back Together" reclaim gum-snapping pop-punk from Weezer's myriad hijackers. But how does one appropriately respond to tracks like the buffet-soundtrack sitar jam "Love Is the Answer" and the Warrant-worthy ode to post-puberty "The Girl Got Hot?"
Maybe just relax and order a double.
-- August Brown