COUNTRY: Carrie Underwood, "Blown Away" (Arista Nashville)
The new album by the shiny but tough country star starts out loud, sassy, rollicking and wise. "Good Girl" plays out like a sequel to Underwood's 2006 smash "Before He Cheats," except, instead of taking out her rightfully stoked dissatisfaction on her ex, she opts for unity and warns the next woman instead. After that it's a one-two punch of brutality: a quick-paced "Blown Away," in which a young woman hides in her basement, waiting out a tornado that she hopes her abusive, alcoholic father sleeping upstairs doesn't survive; followed by "Two Black Cadillacs," in which a wife and a mistress conspire to kill the man they share.
Underwood enjoys rage; her huge voice, both naïve and muscular, is well-suited to it. "Blown Away" is only her fourth CD, but that number belies her concrete-hard place in the country firmament. While the album starts bold and mechanically impressive, it gets progressively quieter over the course of its first half, as if she were taking a break from fire-breathing. "Do You Think About Me" is tepid; "Nobody Ever Told You" is bland and blithe, and "One Way Ticket" -- part Jimmy Buffett, part Jason Mraz -- is Underwood at her least convincing. Relaxation is not her milieu. "Blown Away" builds steam again. By the rowdy and sinister "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," her nostrils are practically flaring.
On a few of this album's early songs, a perplexing number of digital effects are applied to Underwood's vocals, processing she neither needs nor benefits from. She may be unhappy, but hearing her tense up is half the fun. Underwood performs Sept. 27 at Target Center.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
POP/ROCK: Rufus Wainwright, "Out of the Game" (Decca)
Finally, Wainwright returns to pop. Since 2007's "Release the Stars," he has written an opera ("Prima Donna"), offered 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." For "Out of the Game," Wainwright drafted producer Mark Ronson, who 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 free of pretension (although the complicated melody of "Montauk" falls flat).
Like his father, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus is 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. Wainwright performs Aug. 11 at the Minnesota Zoo.
STEVE KLINGE, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER