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Listening Room: Carrie Underwood, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and more...
Carrie Underwood, "Carnival Ride" (Arista) ***
With the exception of inaugural champ Kelly Clarkson, second-album fortunes haven't been particularly good for "American Idol" finalists (see Bo Bice, below). But Carrie Underwood comes better positioned than her peers for sophomore success. The Season 3 "Idol" winner's niche in country has ensured her a different and more loyal kind of audience as well as a generally more welcoming playing field from which to launch a career. And the fact that she did so in a big way, with her six-times platinum 2005 debut "Some Hearts," gives her a pass to the front of the line for this "Carnival Ride." Underwood, who co-wrote four of the 13 songs here, makes the most of the opportunity with a well-crafted set of rockers, ballads and torch songs, with enough twang to keep the country fans happy and enough polish to maintain her crossover pop appeal. "Carnival Ride" starts off sounding like Underwood is going to give Gretchen Wilson a run for her redneck woman money on the fiery opening track "Flat on the Floor," but "All-American Girl" and "So Small," two of Underwood's co-writes, quickly bring the album back into earthy terrain. She still manages to kick it up on buoyant tracks such as "Get Out of This Town," "Twisted," "The More Boys I Meet" and the good-humored morning-after lament "Last Name," while "Just a Dream," in which a bride-to-be laments her dead fiance, "I Know You Won't" and "Wheel of the World" let her wrap some full-throated vocals around rich orchestrations. In "Crazy Dreams" Underwood reveals that "I know how it feels to be afraid/I think that it's all gonna slip away." With "Carnival Ride," however, she has little to fear.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand" (Rounder) ***1/2
As odd couples go, this is a good one -- he from the thundering rock world of Led Zeppelin, she from the most celebrated career in contemporary bluegrass. Aided by sympathetic producer T-Bone Burnett they've created a collaborative gem that takes both singers into fresh areas of vocal expression (check out Plant's hushed, aching delivery of ex-Byrds member Gene Clark's "Polly Come Home") and moving duets on tracks such as the Everly Brothers' "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)," Mel Tillis' "Stick With Me Baby," the Carter Family-styled spiritual "Your Long Journey" and an inventive reinvention of "Please Read the Letter" from "Walking Into Clarksdale," Plant's 1998 album with Zep partner Jimmy Page. Plant and Page are, ironically, reuniting for a Zep concert next month in London, but on "Raising Sand" Krauss provides an equally exciting alliance.
New & Noteworthy:
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, "Follow the Lights" (Lost Highway): Adams and company follow their "Easy Tiger" album with an EP featuring two new songs and some live cuts.
Gary Allan, "Living Hard" (MCA Nashville): The country maverick's latest set includes songwriting collaborations with Jim Lauderdale as well as contributions from Radney Foster and Dixie Chicks guitarist Audley Freed.
Babyshambles, "Shotter's Nation" (Astralwerks): The second album from the British band led by Pete Doherty, the British tabloids' favorite rocker.
Bo Bice, "See the Light" (Sugar Money/StratArt): "American Idol's" rockin' Season 3 runner-up returns to the independent label world after a short run in the spotlight.
Bizarre, "Blue Cheese 'N' Coney Island" (Koch): The second album from D-12's rotund and most twisted member.
Carbon/Silicon, "Last Post" (Caroline): The long-awaited debut of the new band led by Clash guitarist Mick Jones and Generation X vet Tony James.
Cobra Starship, "Viva La Cobra!" (Fueled By Ramen): The New York dance-punk group's second album was produced by Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump.
Coheed & Cambria, "No World For Tomorrow" (Columbia): The hard rockers' fourth album is being issued in four different packages for fans of various enthusiasms.
Dave Gahan, "Hourglass" (Virgin): The second solo album from the Depeche Mode frontman.
Shooter Jennings, "Wolf" (Universal South): The third studio outing from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter's kid includes a cover of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life."
Juanes, "Vida..Es un Ratico" (Universal Latino): The Latin pop giant holds his ground and doesn't pander to the mainstream (i.e. English-speaking) market on his fourth album.
Emmy Rossum, "Inside Out" (Geffen): The debut set from the actress who showed off her singing chops in the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera."
Say Anything, "In Defense of the Genre" (J): The Los Angeles modern rockers' sophomore album is a two-disc epic with guests such as My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way, Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba and Pete Yorn.
Seether, "Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces" (Wind-Up): The South African ex-patriates' third studio album finds frontman Shaun Morgan swiping back, but lightly, at ex-girlfriend Amy Lee of Evanescence.
Serj Tankian, "Elect the Dead" (Warner Bros.): With System of a Down on indefinite hiatus, its frontman delivers his first solo album.
The Temptations, "Back to Front" (New Door): the Motown veterans offer up their takes on hits by Sam & Dave, the Bee Gees, the Staple Singers, the Doobie Brothers and more.
Dwight Yoakam, "Dwight Sings Buck" (New West): The country star pays tribute to his hero Buck Owens on this 15-song set of covers.
Neil Young, "Chrome Dreams II" (Warner Bros.): Though its title refers to a famously unreleased mid-'70s albums, this features mostly new recordings, though three of the songs have been around for many years.
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