Thu, Nov 05, 2015 - Page 11 News List

CD reviews

By JON CARAMANICA and BEN RATLIFF  /  NY Times News Service

StorytellerbyCarrie Underwood

Storyteller

Carrie Underwood

19/Arista Nashville

In recent years, the two poles of female country music could be neatly distilled to Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. Swift brought youthful, diaristic intensity to the genre, before leaving it behind to be the world’s pre-eminent pop star. Lambert championed for country’s scrappier side, preserving traditionalist aesthetics while overlaying them with pugnacious feminist storytelling.

It is not quite an insult to say that Carrie Underwood could reasonably play the Broadway version of either of those singers. At the country vocal Olympics, she’s a gold medalist. She had a victorious turn scream-singing on American Idol and has extended it into a victorious scream-singing career in Nashville, in which she has sold approximately 15 million albums, been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and acted as the longtime co-host (with Brad Paisley) of the Country Music Association Awards.

All she’s missing is the one thing Swift and Lambert have down cold: a fixed identity.

Storyteller is her fifth album, and even though a decade has passed since her debut, Underwood is still preoccupied with power, not texture or finesse. She largely picks songs that serve as launch platforms for her ballistic-missile voice, but they don’t cohere into a whole identity. Her voice is pure, lean, potent — it doesn’t have multiple settings. By tone alone, it can be difficult to divine when she’s ecstatic, or aggrieved, or wretched.

That means Underwood sings with equal intensity on the insipid Heartbeat and The Girl You Think I Am, an unrelentingly treacly song about being daddy’s little girl, as on the breathy, sly Relapse, about falling back into old habits. She calls her lover, in quick succession, “time that I’m wasting,” “some wine that I’m tasting” and “a high that I’m chasing,” in a voice that recalls Lita Ford more than any country singer.

If Underwood has developed a thematic specialty, it’s the woman-done-wrong anthem. The ones on this album are some of the better songs here. Dirty Laundry finds her catching her man in lies, and Church Bells is a worthy addition to country’s proud line of songs about domestic violence:

Everyone thought they were Ken and Barbie

But Ken was always getting way too drunk

Saturday night after a few too many

He came home ready to fight

And all his money could never save Jenny

From the devil living in his eyes

It was all bruises covered in makeup, dark sunglasses

And that next morning sitting in the back pew

Praying with the Baptists

Although the song is elegantly structured and technically impressive, it still lacks bite or pulp. It’s tough not to wonder what Lambert might have done with it.

— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service

Divers

Joanna Newsom

Drag City

Why Divers as an album title? Because its lyrics contain diving as a metaphor for love and moving through time. Maybe, also, because that is the Middle English spelling of diverse, a word that hints at the multiplicity in Joanna Newsom’s work. She plays the harp using polyrhythms; the sound of her music reflects the serious singer-songwriter folk-pop of the 1970s, American folk traditions, art song and operetta. Her voice is a wild bunch of tonal shadings, and her compositions tend to move through several strains. And maybe, also, “Divers” because this rather brilliant record is heaving you into the deep end. You might as well go headfirst.

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