Music

Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride

Carrie Underwood will probably never record a better song than "Before He Cheats", but she comes closer than you'd expect on her superb sophomore effort.


Carrie Underwood

Carnival Ride

Label: Arista Nashville
US Release Date: 2007-10-23
UK Release Date: 2007-10-29
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“Before He Cheats” was lightning caught in a Jack Daniels bottle. It was one of those extraordinarily rare moments in music when everything comes together perfectly in exactly the right way in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. You know that line, “you can’t please all the people all the time”? “Before He Cheats” is an exception that proofs the rule. Even my city-girl wife, who flat-out can’t stand about 99.9% of country music not by Johnny Cash, agrees that it’s a fantastic song. And it, or at least its near-universal popularity, happened almost by accident. It wasn’t the first, second, third, or even fourth single released off 2005’s good-but-not-spectacular Some Hearts. It was the fifth.

It’s almost certainly the best song Carrie Underwood will ever put to record. Which is a real dilemma, when you remember that we’re talking about a considerable talent who won’t turn 25 until next March. So, what’s a girl to do? My advice, for what it’s worth, would be for Underwood to have an extended sit-down with American Idol‘s original champ. Kelly Clarkson pulled off a similar(ly unlikely) feat with “Since U Been Gone”, another classic kiss-off that virtually everyone agreed was the best thing since sliced bread (or, you know, at least since “Hey Ya”). I imagine Kelly would wisely advise Carrie to keep on keepin’ on, to continue doing what she does best. Or perhaps she’d just pass along that people evidently aren’t as into faux-goth affectation from American Idol winners as they are fist-pumping diatribes against lousy ex-boyfriends.

Another possibility is that Underwood doesn’t need any shared wisdom, from me, Clarkson, or anybody else. Carnival Ride doesn’t include anything as stand-alone stunning as the song she’ll still be singing at state fairs when she’s 64, but it’s a much better front-to-back collection than her debut. If “Before He Cheats” opened doors to a dizzy world of pop possibility for Checotah, Oklahoma’s favorite daughter, Carnival Ride suggests that she might be happy enough as one of country’s brightest lights. And who knows? Maybe “Last Name” (“It started off ‘hey, cutie, where you from?’ / and then it turned into, ‘oh no, what’ve I done?’”) will duplicate “Before”’s across-the-board success. But I’m not counting on it, and unless I’m underestimating the level head on Underwood’s shoulders, I doubt she is either.

Carrie has a great voice with lots of range, but so do plenty of other young country starlets. It very well may be why she won American Idol, yet it’s not her greatest asset. Like Dylan, Cline, Brando, and plenty of others before her, Underwood’s most significant talent lies in her delivery. By turns, breathy and breathless, it’s almost a rap, by which I don’t mean just bad rapping (see Nellie McKay, whom I love, just sayin’). Rather, I mean that her sense of the human voice’s capability for intensely rhythmic cadences is impeccable and very nearly peerless. Take, for starters, album opener “Flat on the Floor” in which she somehow spits and twists “baby, baby, baby, baby, tell me why / you gotta make me, make me, make me, make me cry” into the catchiest couplet I’ve heard in months.

She’s also pretty funny, or her writers are anyway. “The More Boys I Meet” is a fine addition to the canon of punch-line country. The rest of it goes, “the more I love my dog”. And, as any comedian worth his weight in third-slot Conan appearances will no doubt affirm, the delivery (yep, that unsung virtue again) counts for at least as much as the material. Scott Kennedy and Steve McEwen (whoever they are; kudos to them!) might’ve written the words, but something tells me that if they were coming out of, say, Chan Marshall’s mouth,. I wouldn’t have chuckled too much once I caught the joke.

Speaking of writing, though, Underwood co-authored four of the songs here, and they all rank among the better half of a 13-track album that’s blessedly free of half-assed throwaway cuts. The best one’s called “All-American Girl”, which is every bit as hokey and every bit as charming as its title would suggest. It’s a sweet yarn about a young married couple. She’s pregnant, he’s “praying for a little baby / boy”. He “could already see him holdin’ that trophy, takin’ his team to state”, but, naturally, “when the nurse came in with a little pink blanket / all those big dreams changed”. The baby wrapped up in that little pink blanket may or may not have grown up into an American Idol winner, multi-Grammy recipient, and hypothetical automobile destroyer. Either way, “he’s wrapped around her finger, she’s the center of his whole world” -- as well she should be.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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