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The cover of Carrie Underwood's fourth album illustrates her evolution since introducing herself as a young Oklahoma woman with a powerful voice.
Initially, she came across as the friendly girl next door, with songs about Jesus and of compassion for the less fortunate, while showing her wit with empowering songs about getting back at a cheating guy.
The cover of "Blown Away" depicts the modern Underwood as an airbrushed, supermodel heroine, right leg thrust out forward from a glamorous gown like Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards. Her opening hit, "Good Girl" - slamming along to a sneering rock arrangement - chastises a naive girl for not realizing she's being fooled by a conniving lover. The title song tells of an abused daughter hoping a tornado destroys her house - and her father with it. Another, "Two Black Cadillacs," describes how a wife and a mistress silently share a deadly secret at the funeral of their two-faced man.
Those songs, delivered forcefully with cool distance rather than heated passion, set the tone for "Blown Away." Gone is the shy, small-town girl who won the fourth season of "American Idol." Unlike her peers Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift, Underwood hasn't opened herself to fans through songs that reveal her personality; instead, she's charged forward with a take-no-prisoners attitude that's more about brassy, modern entertainment than connecting with fans on an intimate level.
One of the album's gentler songs, "Nobody Ever Told You," sweetly advises a woman she's a jewel without all the glitz and vanity she hides behind. Underwood co-wrote the song - and would benefit from taking her song's advice.
Little Broken Hearts
Norah Jones is rich, beautiful and has one of the most gorgeous voices in popular music. None of that makes her immune to a broken heart.
Sad for her, good for us. Jones channeled her hurt into a collaboration with Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton with 12 reflections on love gone wrong.
It's no pick-me-up, obviously. But Jones does more than wallow. She's angry, defiant, wounded, all-too-willing to slip back into a bad thing and even entertains a murder fantasy - in short, the full range of emotions that anyone feels when a serious relationship ends.
In the catchy "She's 22," Jones imagines her ex's life with a new lover, ending with "I'd like to see you happy." Falser words were never spoken. On "Out On the Road," she steps out with determination and a half tank of gas, only to hear a ghostly voice remind her that she's got "nowhere to go." Jones, sweet little Norah, tells the subject in "Miriam" that "I'm gonna smile when I take your life."
Burton proves an excellent collaborator, the music sometimes spooky and bass-heavy but also surprisingly sunny in spots. If she's not pushed or energized, Jones' music can bore. There are enough good musical ideas here to keep the mind from wandering, and it brings her squarely into contemporary pop without sounding contrived.
Thematic albums are increasingly rare these days, good ones rarer still. Jones and Burton pull it off.
Third Man Records
Jack White's first solo CD reflects the many musical efforts that preceded it: There's the snarly electric guitar he first introduced with the stripped-down White Stripes, the country sound he cultivated in his current hometown in Nashville and in his work with the legendary Loretta Lynn, and the rock energy he whipped up with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather.
"Blunderbuss" shows how far the 36-year-old musician-singer-songwriter-producer has come since the White Stripes first sizzled ears in 1999. The sound here is richer and more layered, with piano or keyboard on every track and even some fiddles and clarinet. White harmonizes with himself and stretches his voice to ever higher octaves, at times evoking Robert Plant. He explores various genres and musical stylings, but sticks to familiar themes of betrayal, love and loneliness.
"Love Interruption," though musically gentle, stabs with its lyrics. "I want love to grab my fingers gently, slam them in a doorway and put my face into the ground," White sings atop backup singer Ruby Amanfu's haunting voice. "I want love to murder my own mother and take her off to somewhere like hell or up above."
A cappella, they sing: "I want love to walk right up and bite me, grab a hold of me and fight me, leave me on the ground."
White split from model-musician Karen Elson, with whom he has two children, last summer. Still, Elson sings backup on several "Blunderbuss" tracks (and White produced and released her debut album last year).
White's not all blue. The bouncy "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy" features happy piano and mandolin, while "On and On and On" is an ethereal musing on life's direction.
"Blunderbuss" isn't hard rock, but the blues-infused evolution of its author.
Out of the Game
Finally, Rufus Wainwright returns to pop. Since 2007's Release the Stars, Wainwright has written an opera ("Prima Donna"), released a ponderous album of Shakespeare sonnets turned into songs ("All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu"), and re-created, lovingly, Judy Garland's "Live at Carnegie Hall" set. For "Out of the Game," Wainwright drafted producer Mark Ronson, who in turn brought in the Dap-Kings, the R&B band he borrowed from Sharon Jones for Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." They crafted a '70s FM sound inspired by Elton John, "Young Americans"-era David Bowie, and Steely Dan. It's sometimes extravagant ("Welcome to the Ball"), sometimes languorous ("Respectable Drive") and mercifully free of pretension (almost - the overly complicated melody of "Montauk" falls flat). It's good to have Wainwright back in the pop game: Like his father, Loudon Wainwright III, he's witty and pointed; like his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, he's emotionally forthright and nuanced. He doesn't shy from ambition, but these sophisticated pop productions suit his sly, often cynical, songs well.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Not a lot of rappers can say they're feuding mercilessly with critical darlings Odd Future, modeling for fashion lines, or collaborating with Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, and Morgan Freeman, all at about the same time. That's B.o.B.'s job.
The North Carolina-reared hip-hop singer/MC made his first album, "B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray," into a genre-jumping, conceptually schizoid affair. The follow-up, "Strange Clouds," benefits from his debut's messed-up musicality. "So Hard to Breathe" is a hook-heavy honey of a cut with a handsome jumble of tenderly acoustic and epically electric guitars. "Where Are You (B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray)" reflects his Southern upbringing. "Arena," featuring T.I. and salty crooner Chris Brown, is aerated and arena rock-hopping grand.
Although it lacks Adventures' fantastical thematic through line, Clouds still has the same melodious singsong quality to B.o.B.'s raps, whether going it alone ("Circles"), doing a brown-eyed soul routine ("Castles," with Trey Songz), making nice with the voice of God (Freeman on "Bombs Away"), or doing a duet with Swift, country-pop's sweetheart of the rodeo. Together, B.o.B. and Swift make "Both of Us" into a buoyantly sentimental blend of ukulele-filled folk and syrupy dubstep-lite. That's some dumb - but weirdly effective - genre-jumping.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Martin Zellar and The Hardways
This has got to drive an artist nuts. Martin Zellar has done a lot of stellar work, first with the Gear Daddies and later on his own, but the Minnesotan's best-known song is probably the novelty "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni," which was originally just a hidden throwaway on a Gear Daddies album.
You won't find anything so lighthearted on "Roosters Crow," Zellar's first album in 10 years. Thematically, it's the downer you'd expect with titles such as "Took the Poison," "Seven Shades of Blue," and "The Skies Are Always Gray." But as anxious, guilt-ridden, and regretful as Zellar may sound, he always skirts tedious solipsism. Helping greatly to counter the gloom is the clean, spare accompaniment, which encompasses ringing rock and rootsy touches such as Lloyd Maines' pedal steel and Dobro on selected cuts. "I will be OK," Zellar concludes on the finale, "It Works for Me." Works for us, too.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Since he teamed up in 2001 with the Fabulous Superlatives - guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Paul Martin - Marty Stuart has been making the best music of his career, even if the onetime "Hillbilly Rock" champion is no longer having hits as he did in the '90s. He continues on that roll here.
As Stuart puts it in the liner notes: "Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music." OK, that's a bit of hyperbole, but make no mistake: This is country music, no holds barred, from the propulsive twang of the title track to the aching balladry of "A Matter of Time" and the hot picking of the instrumental "Hollywood Boogie." And the material matches the excellence of the music. Stuart wrote seven of the 10 numbers, augmented by the cautionary tale "Sundown at Nashville," the honky-tonk lament "Holding on to Nothing," and Hank Williams' "Pictures From Life's Other Side," on which the always history-minded Stuart duets with Hank III.
The Philadelphia Inquirer