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The Listening Room, Carrie Underwood, Marilyn Manson and more...
On her first three albums, Carrie Underwood has sounded like an "American Idol" champion -- big songs, big voice, a scope of superstar event even before she could justify the designation. It worked, of course; Underwood is unquestionably the most successful of the show's 10 winners and has just as successfully transitioned into a performer whose "Idol" past is more footnote than front of mind at this point. On her fourth album, however, Underwood flexes some new artistic muscles, exploring fresh musical nuances without sacrificing the mainstream-ready formula that's allowed her to capably straddle the pop-country divide. Produced by Underwood's career-long aide de camp Mark Bright, "Blown Away" puts together a solid mix of rock ("Good Girl"), polished pop ("Blown Away," "See You Again," the Mutt Lange-written "Who Are You") and some Kenny Chesney-worhty island fare ("One Way Ticket"), with just enough twang to hold her post co-hosting the Country Music Association Awards. And CMA partner Brad Paisley shows up to do some fierce pickin' on the rootsy "Cupid's Got a Shotgun." Underwood's performances this time, meanwhile, are marked by restraint; the serial belter -- who co-wrote eight of the 14 tracks here -- has embraced greater dynamic range, delivering the melodies rather than forcing them. A good case in point -- "Leave Love Alone," a rootsy, feel-good tune that sounds like Underwood is singing on the front porch and not trying to shout it out to the next state. It also helps that "Blown Away" features some clever and compelling stories, including a heart-rending reference to aging and dementia ("Forever Changed") and a couple of sly and twisted revenge tales in "Two Black Cadillacs" and the title track. She's already sold plenty of records, but this time the champ turns in a real winner.
Marilyn Manson, "Born Villain" (Hell, Etc./Cooking Vinyl) **1/2
If Marilyn Manson's theatrical, gratuitously provocative schtick has worn thin for you on the last couple of albums from the shock rocker and his namesake group, their first new set in three years opens the door to come back in. Manson quotes Macbeth, of all things, early on, identifying himself as "an idiot full of sound and fury," but the sounds are a bit different this time out. The raw, industrial metal underpinning is still at the core, but a more diverse set of moods and styles sits atop it, including nods to the Stooges ("The Gardener"), glam rock ("Slo-Mo-Tion") and even blues ("Lay Down Your Goddamn Arms"). And the bonus track cover of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" with Johnny Depp is cacophonous camp that suits the set well. The self-styled antichrist may not be a superstar anymore, but he can still make a noise well worth hearing.
New and Noteworthy:
Blockhead, "Interludes After Midnight" (Ninja Tune): The mostly instrumental album from the New York-based hip-hop producer features Baby Dayliner on the lone vocal track "Beyond Read."
B.o.B., "Strange Clouds" (Grand Hustle/Rebel Rock/Atlantic): Actor Morgan Freeman intonates on the opening track of the North Carolina hip-hop artist's sophomore album, which also features Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, T.I., NIcki Minaj, Ryan Tedder and Trey Songz.
Brian Jonestown Massacre, "Aufheben" (A.): The San Francisco avant rockers recorded their 13th album in Berlin with members form Spaceman 3, Spiritualized, Dimmer and Rockcandys guesting.
Chelle Rose, "Ghost of Browder Holler" (Lil' Damsel): Ray Wyilie Hubbard produced the second album by this Appalachian roots music troupe.
Mark Collie, "Alive at Brushy Mountain" (Wilbanks Entertainment): After sitting on it for more than a decade, the country singer releases the recording of his 2001 performance at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee.
The Gaddabouts, "Look Out Now" (racecarLOTTA): The second outing by the all-star group fronted by Edie Brickell packs 17 songs across two discs.
Deitrick Haddon presents Voices of Unity, "A Beautiful Soul (Music Inspired by the Motion Picture)" (Tyscot): The actor, singer and songwriter gathers friends such as Faith Evans, Adia and Nikki Potts on a set that's more companion than soundtrack.
Hurt, "The Crux" (Carved): The modern rock group's sixth studio album is its first since the departure of guitarist Paul Spatola, with Hurt soldiering on as a quartet.
Norah Jones, "...Little Broken Hearts" (Blue Note/EMI): Jones shakes things up a bit on her fifth album, bringing in Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys) to help bring a new kind of urgent energy to her previously laid-back approach.
Little Hurricane, "Homewrecker" (Unknown Breakthrough): The debut album by the San Diego duo whose single "Haunted Heart" previously caught the ears of "Gossip Girls" viewers.
Original Cast Recording, "The Music of Smash" (Columbia): Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty are, of course, the featured performers on this set of tunes from the musical NBC series.
Anders Osborne, "Black Eye Galaxy" (Alligator): The latest collection from the Swedish-born singer-songwriter who's been based in New Orleans since 1985.
Pennywise, "All or Nothing" (Epitaph): The California punk rockers' latest emerges after a four-year wait and marks the debut of new frontman Zoli Teglas.
Point of Grace, "A Thousand Little Things" (World Entertainment): The Contemporary Christian vocal trio marks its 20th anniversary with its 12th album.
Portland Cello Project, "Homage" (Jealous Butcher): No tame chamber music for this group; you'll find covers of material by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, OutKast and more here, though they've never sounded quite like this.
Santigold, "Master of Make-Believe" (Atlantic): The Philadelphia singer and club music denizen tapped pals such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Diplo, Switch, Q-Tip and TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek to help make her sophomore album.
Various Artists, "Avengers Assemble" (Marvel Music/Hollywood): "Live to Rise," the first new track from Soundgarden in 15 years, is the highlight of a film companion that also includes tracks from Shinedown, Rise Against, Scott Weiland, Bush and more.
Various Artists, "Now 42: That's What I Call Music" and "Now Classic Rock Hits" (EMI): The popular compilation series keeps the hits coming, whether it's Kelly Clarkson and One Direction or Bad Company and Meat Loaf.
Rufus Wainwright, "Out of the Game" (Decca/Polydor): The singer-songwriter's seventh album was produced by Mark Ronson and features sister Martha Wainwright and members of Wilco, the Dap-Kings, Miike [cq] Snow and Waingwright's sister, Martha.
From The Vaults: The Ad Libs, "The Complete Blue Cat Recordings" (Real Gone); Cowboy Copas, "Complete Hit Singles A's and B's" (Real Gone); George Harrison, "Early Takes Volume 1: Music From the Martin Scorsese Picture 'Living in the Material World' " (Hip-O); Little Willie John, "Complete Hit Singles A's and B's" (Real Gone); Mel McDaniel, "Baby's Got Her Blues Jeans on -- His Original Capitol Hits" (Real Gone); Eddie Rabbitt, "13 Original #1 Hits" (Real Gone)
Soundtracks: Mark Isham, "Once Upon a Time: Original Television Soundtrack" (Intrada); David Julyan, "Cabin in the Woods" (Varese Sarabande); Thomas Newman, "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (Sony Classics); Alan Silvestri, "The Avengers, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" (Marvel Music/Hollywood)
New Music DVDs: "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" (Hip-O) -- Gary Graff
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