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Carrie on

(Reuters) / 7 May 2012

AMERICAN IDOL DID more than launch Carrie Underwood’s career — it helped shape the picture-perfect image she has today.

In interviews and public appearances, she never has a hair out of place and always says the right things. She only recently decided it was safe to join Twitter, and if there’s ever a controversial tweet from her account, assume it got hacked.

Her carefully crafted persona doesn’t come from American Idol media training, but rather from what she feels were cringe-worthy moments during her winning run on the show in 2005 that stereotyped her as a naive “country girl.”

“I’m glad I can present a polished version of myself when it counts. When I was on Idol, I said some dumb stuff, and learned what that could do, and that stuff lives on,” said the Oklahoma native. “It seemed like every single solitary stupid thing I said was aired and featured and replayed over and over and over again.”

After that, the 29-year-old made a conscious effort to portray herself in public as what she calls a “somewhat intelligent person” who graduated from college.

Yet when recording her fourth album, Blown Away, Underwood allowed herself to be unguarded, and sometimes downright silly.

“When you go in to write, you have to be willing to sound stupid,” said Underwood. “Before you have a chance to think about something, you blurt it out and it doesn’t make any sense, and everybody gets a good laugh out of it. You can’t be afraid to sound completely dumb when you go to write.”

She’s giving herself permission to be a little less concerned about her image these days as well. It has taken her multiplatinum, Grammy-winning success, as well as the confidence of co-writing six of her 14 No. 1 country singles, for her to get comfortable with letting her personality shine through in more than just her music.

Goofy side

Blown Away represents Underwood’s continued growth as an artist. She co-wrote eight of the album’s 14 tracks, a far cry from the one tune she penned on her debut album. The disc is also a diverse collection, both musically and thematically.

The title track pulsates with a dance beat over a storyline describing a girl who heads to a storm shelter, hoping a tornado will destroy her home and her drunk, abusive dad asleep upstairs. One Way Ticket sways with a reggae groove. Cupid’s Got A Shotgun, featuring Brad Paisley on guitar, introduces fans to her redneck side. And Wine After Whiskey is a heartbreaking break-up ballad that has a classic feel.

Grammy-winning songwriter Josh Kear, known for hits like Underwood’s Before He Cheats and Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now, wrote four songs on Blown Away. Three were penned with Underwood, including the foreboding Two Black Cadillacs about a wife and a mistress who conspire to get even with the man who betrayed them both.

Kear, who had never written with Underwood before this record, was thrilled with her as a collaborator. The day they wrote the quirky Cupid’s Got A Shotgun, Kear had suggested the title at the beginning of the session, and they had spent two to three hours working on another tune before getting stuck.

“Suddenly, she starts stomping her feet and clapping her hands and singing essentially what is now the melody for Cupid’s Got A Shotgun. She had somehow, while we were in the process of writing this other song, been mulling it over in her brain and came back to that title,” he said.

Kear jumped right in, and they wrote the song in about 15 minutes.

“It was kind of goofy, and a lot of people don’t get to see that loose, goofy side of her, and I think that is one of the reasons she was excited to get those songs is she gets to bring a side of herself that hasn’t really always been out there,” he said.

‘I get to have fun’

Country fans have seen Underwood’s comedic side as co-host of the Country Music Association Awards with Paisley for the past four years. Executive producer Robert Deaton saw another side of her behind the scenes, which is why he initially tapped her for the job.

“The more you know her, the more you like her,” he said. “That outgoing personality, just funny, timing is perfect, witty. She’s also incredibly intelligent as well.”

Deaton believes the CMA Awards gig has been very important to balancing out her career. During writing sessions for the show, he said Underwood is quick to make a joke even funnier or throw out an idea that is spot on. He says her quick-witted delivery on stage is “very much who she is.”

“Her participation is so deep on many levels (of the show.) On one hand, she can do comedy. On the other hand, she can also bring class and beauty to the broadcast,” he said. “Then she can go out and do an unbelievable performance, so it’s multi-layered of what she brings to the table.”

While Underwood has brought more of her personality into play with Blown Away, she is careful to point out its songs — many of which have a dark, edgier tone — are not a reflection of her personal life.

“When I think of my career and when I think of ‘Carrie Underwood,’ that has kind of taken on a life of its own. I feel like when I’m on stage, when I’m writing songs, singing songs, I’m in the studio, I’m shooting videos, I kind of get to become this character, and I can make that whatever I want to make that. I honestly in a lot of ways don’t want to sing about my real life, because that’s private,” she said. “I’m pretty private about my personal life and my husband and our life together, and I think it’s so wonderful I can separate the two. I get to be an actress. I get to play a character. I get to have fun and tell stories.”

And she’s apparently not a bad actress in real life. She jokes that she’s “got everyone fooled” if they think she’s flawless.

“My husband (NHL player Mike Fisher) calls me ‘the queen of awkward moments.’ If something can be said to make an awkward moment even worse, I’m going to say it,” she said. AP


Blown Away is a breeze

IT’S A GOOD thing that you can’t judge a book by its sleeve art, because Carrie Underwood’s fourth album, Blown Away, bears one of the tackiest country music album covers of all time - a ludicrously airbrushed portrait that dares you not to focus on Underwood’s gleaming, Angelina-like right gam while the star gazes into the distance like a fembot on a romance-novel jacket.

It’s a relief to find the music inside is better... sometimes, much better. Yet over 14 wildly disparate tracks, you may feel flummoxed trying to get a handle on just who Underwood is. Just when you think you might have a handle on the album’s emotional or musical identity, it’s gone with the breeze.    

The former American Idol winner suggested in advance of the album’s release that some of the new material is “darker,” and the ominous clouds in the background of the cover art do suggest stormy weather therein.

Underwood quickly makes good on that promise by placing two murder/revenge songs right up front, back to back, as the disc’s second and third tracks. Carrie Underwood - violent femme?

But it doesn’t stay that noir for long. She soon moves on to more sentimental material celebrating deceased loved ones, or being grateful that the one that got away did get away, or how you really can go home again. Eventually she’s even singing the praises of partying in flip-flops, in contrast to those homicidal heels she’s sporting on the cover.      

Her current single, the hair-metal/pop pastiche Good Girl, comes off as a combination of the previous album’s Cowboy Casanova and Undo It, albeit about twice as fast as either. It’s too bad there’s nothing like this riff-happy opener on the rest of the album, although the country rave-up Cupid’s Got a Shotgun manages to be as loud and zesty with the help of a Brad Paisley guitar solo.

Then it’s on to those two vengeance songs. Two Black Cadillacs tells the story of a wife and mistress who conspired to send the man who made them miserable to his grave. Well, it sort of tells the story, since the lyrics avoid informing us how the two gals actually kill the guy.      

Blown Away, the title track, suffers from the opposite narrative problem. Underwood sings of a girl who locks her mean, drunken dad out of their underground shelter during a tornado. We never find out for sure if the twister kills him or not. We do learn, however, that Underwood would like to have her own version of Martina McBride’s Independence Day.          

These vivid potboilers are intended to be the big showpieces for Underwood, but it’s on the more relaxed material where she really shines, even if the songs themselves are blander. When the material allows her to be low-key, Underwood has a gift for conversational phrasing that might actually be even more impressive than her knack for belting.        Just don’t expect much you haven’t heard before.

Thank God for Hometowns won’t win any awards for originality in country’s ongoing small-town/back-to-the-homestead sweepstakes. There’ve been better songs about Alzheimer’s than Forever Changed. Good in Goodbye was a better song about being better off not getting the love you wanted when it was Garth Brooks’ Unanswered Prayers (or was it Rascal Flatts’ Bless the Broken Road?).

Yet the skilled sweetness and sense of discovery that Underwood brings to her readings of even these predictable, slightly-above-average tunes can’t be underestimated.     

The album’s most delightful number, Leave Love Alone, is an unpretentious hootenanny, suitable for a campfire sing-a-long. It has the same celebratory spirit as the record’s one truly terrible tune, One Way Ticket, a Kenny Chesney wanna-be summer tour anthem. “Life is so good, it’s sticky sweet/ It’s a carnival cotton candy treat/Unwrap it like a lollipop, lick it,” she sings, in a semi-tropical number your ears will wish they could unhear, speaking of Undo It.

The album ends with a new song by Robert Mutt Lange, Who Are You, that fans have already called a contemporary Christian song, though a closer examination makes clear the “saviour” she sings about is an object of her romantic obsession. But you can see why people might assume she’d end with a gospel song, since she covers just about every other country trope. It’s a kitchen sink kind of album.        

And that’s not always a bad thing; Miranda Lambert’s recent Four the Record was just as all over the place. But you don’t doubt Lambert’s conviction from song to song, whereas Underwood seems to be trying on moods like she’s trying on gowns, and certainly never revealing the inner life of a woman who did, after all, get married since her last album.

If there’s anything in life that really blows Underwood away, you won’t know if from this moderately windblown collection.

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