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Carrie Underwood, ‘Blown Away’
Whatever happened to Jesus taking the wheel? The drama that Carrie Underwood stirs on two songs that launch the mature evolution as heard on her best-album-to-date could use a little divine intervention. “There’s not enough rain in Oklahoma to wash the sins out of that house,” she belts furiously on a dramatic country-rocker about literally burying the past, a girl letting her no-good father get swept up in a twister. The orchestration picks up like a windstorm as Underwood, as narrator, tears it up with her full-throttle delivery. There’s also “Two Black Cadillacs,” another grim story-song – a man dies, and his wife meets the mistress at the funeral. Underwood channels the deception of such a soap opera setup with chilling results. Those change-ups, where the country diva steps outside her squeaky-cleanness, stand out most; “Good Girl,” though, has strong appeal, setting a new bar for crossover country. The album missteps when it goes back to Underwood’s usual deal, especially on fan-base-baiting “Forever Changed,” the old-people mush she’s worn out. “Who Are You” is purely a showpiece for that big voice, and the near-embarrassing “One Way Ticket” should suck in theory – oh no, not the whistling! – but Underwood sells it like the cutest puppy at the pound. And if power ballads “Good in Goodbye” and “Wine After Whiskey” are any indication, she also might blow you away. Grade: B
Rufus Wainwright, ‘Out of the Game’
Rufus Wainwright needed his last album more than we did. “All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu,” 2010’s emotional response to his late mother Kate McGarrigle, was him working through his grief – a personal catharsis that wasn’t his most musically fulfilling. Not this time. On “Out of the Game,” Wainwright’s greatest set since 2001’s career-opus “Poses,” he hooks up with retro-pop innovator Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Robbie Williams) for an exquisite 12-track run that’s as easy-sounding as a summer day. And from the get-go, with the sarcastic tone and gospel touches of “Out of the Game,” it’s all richly mind-hugging, the antithesis of melody-lacking “Lulu.” Everything here is flamboyantly handled: the harmonies swirled in ’70s-rock nostalgia (think Elton John), lines referring to “your dad wearing a kimono… and your other dad pruning roses” and that glorious high note his background singer kills during the climax of “Rashida.” Sweet and poignant without indulging in theatrics, “Sometimes You Need” is laced with guitars and lovely string flourishes, finding escapism in the midst of woe – proof that sadness can, indeed, sound beautiful, and stay with you. Same goes for “Candles,” a classy eulogy that honors his mother for over seven mellifluous minutes. Out of the game? More like back in it. Grade: A-
Norah Jones, ‘Little Broken Hearts’
Norah Jones piggybacks off 2009’s “The Fall” by expanding on the low-key rockers that continued her musical meanderings, working them into her sad and bitter truth-tellings on a busted relationship. The end-result? Her best in years. “Good Morning” is a simple ditty of letting go, but as she comes to terms with her new reality, feelings of longing, regret and revenge set in. “Miriam,” despite its deceivingly sweet melody, is about getting her man’s mistress back by beating the crap out of her. Via crunchy guitars and subtle synths – and Jones’ often moody singing – producer Brian Burton’s (aka Danger Mouse) contributions to “Little Broken Hearts” make the former pianist-in-love sound all sorts of things: wicked, vulnerable and destroyed. Jones should be pissy more often.
Florence + the Machine, ‘MTV Unplugged’
With a wail that could tear down skyscrapers, Florence Welch was made for this: She doesn’t need much more than her voice. “No Light, No Light,” a swelling behemoth as presented on her sophomore album “Ceremonials,” gets a simple redo over a minimalistic piano line. “Never Let Me Go” is another delight – pure and delicate, it pulls you down with it. The scaled-back melody of “Shake It Out” calls for understated vocals from Flo, who doesn’t quite deliver them. She does so, however, on a barely recognizable “Try a Little Tenderness,” one of two covers. For the encore: “Dog Days are Over” – and there goes everything in its path.