Carrie Underwood is about to put the "American Idol" blessing to its greatest test.
It's tough to be taken seriously after landing a record deal by singing covers on a talent show. But previous "Idol" winners made the jump from TV to radio in no small part because they were so easy to root for. Ruben Studdard, the Alabama native who wore the "205" shirts on the show and was large enough to have his own area code, owned the gentle giant role. Fantasia Barrino reached for the stars despite having to support a daughter almost as old as she was. And Kelly Clarkson bubbled and bounced and, by winning "Idol," rid the world of Justin Guarini.
But the 2005 Idol, the blond, pretty and by-appearances-normal Underwood, lacks a back story that would give her any underdoggish allure. She's just sort of there. So she'll actually have to put out good tunes to keep the audience provided by the show cheering her on. Alas, nothing on her first CD, "Some Hearts," even hints that her career will last far beyond the crowning of a 2006 titlist.
Underwood drops the Lord's name a lot in her first single, "Jesus Take the Wheel," and continues asking for help from a higher power at other points on her troubled CD. There has never been a separation of church and tripe in pop music. But that shameless ditty, along with others on this bland, unintelligent design of a record, should have listeners of any persuasion praying for one.
Underwood is being marketed as a country singer, probably for no better reason than that releases by Studdard, Fantasia and Clarkson are already filling, respectively, the soul, R&B and pop-rock bins at CD stores. "Some Hearts" was released on a country label, Arista-Nashville, and the cover and liner photos show her in a wheat field. Underwood says the label organized a weekend retreat for her to find songwriters and songs for her coming-out disc. There's so much formula at work here, it should have been put out by Gerber. Among the by-the-numbers bumpkin themes they hashed out during her powwow with professional tunesmiths: the ode to her home town, "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore"; the cheatin' song, "Before He Cheats"; and the aforementioned quasi-godliness with "Jesus Take the Wheel," "Don't Forget to Remember Me" and "Inside Your Heaven."
But despite the packaging, corporate and thematic ties, there's nothing musical to identify this as a country collection. The opening track, "Wasted," sets the aural tone by starting with a hair-band guitar riff before Underwood begins telling tales of folks who've changed their wicked ways, including one ex-sad sack who pours whiskey down the drain and sees how "his eyes were clear for the first time in a while." If Underwood is really going to be country, she's going to need more two-step and less 12-step.
The country conceit really goes awry on the title track, a song from the one-woman hit factory, Diane Warren. The tune, full of metallic guitars and electronica beats, seems to be a tribute to Clarkson, whose recent singles feature pop production that stars from every genre are drooling over.
But whereas Clarkson, through force of spirit, thrived amid all the technology, Underwood just gets lost in the gloss. Jesus, take the knobs.