Thursday, October 29, 2015

album review: 'storyteller' by carrie underwood

It's weird, for as much as I feel I've talked about Carrie Underwood and around Carrie Underwood, I've never actually covered one of her albums at length. And considering she's one of the main standard bearers for women in mainstream country that has a chance of getting radio play now that Taylor Swift is gone, that's saying something.

I think part of it is because I've got a complicated opinion of Carrie Underwood. Like Kelly Clarkson she emerged from American Idol with a ton of hype and was immediately catapulted to join the ranks of powerful female pop country acts that garnered a lot of attention throughout the mid-to-late 2000s. And while she might have been the most successful, she hasn't exactly been a critical darling - a ton of raw firepower but not exactly subtle in her delivery, instrumentation, and especially songwriting, even though she was working with some of the biggest names in the industry. It didn't help matters that songs like 'Before He Cheats' became ubiquitous and not for the best of reasons: you do realize that Carrie's got no proof this guy is cheating on her before she totals his car, right? It also didn't help that it was also around the time Miranda Lambert was breaking in the mainstream in the same lane and writing sharper and smarter songs without the huge arsenal of Nashville behind her, so I had an easy choice, especially as Carrie struggled around the turn of the decade especially with her third album.

Fortunately, things turned around with Blown Away in 2012, mostly through tightening her writing team and going for riskier, darker material that did cross into pop and rock much more but didn't lose that country feel entirely. Now I wouldn't say I loved that album - it had its bright spots paradoxically on the darkest tracks like 'Two Black Cadillacs' and 'Blown Away', though I have a soft spot for 'Good Girl' - but it was an improvement. And I had hope for Storyteller - she's kept most of the same team, 'Smoke Break' was a solid opening single, and though she had brought Jay Joyce onto her production team, I had hopes that he'd be kept in check and not screw up another album. Was I proven right?

Well, here's the thing: Storyteller, for better or worse, is exactly what you'd expect in terms of Carrie Underwood, lyrics, themes, and even some of the instrumentation in trying to find that middle ground between country and modern pop and rock. As such, if you're a fan, you'll probably find a lot to like and you could easily argue it's one of her better albums. However, if you're someone like me who isn't as much of a fan, you're not going to find much that'll grab you here that you wouldn't find on earlier records. And it's not even that this record is bad or hits the low points that afflicted Miranda Lambert's Platinum, instead finding a broad easy middle ground that's accessible but has the feel of being done before.

So for a change let's start with the lyrics and themes of this record, where if you've heard a Carrie Underwood record, you'll know what to expect: hard-edged breakup/revenge songs with a respectable body count, a few cooing love songs that push the saccharine side a little harder than they should - we'll come back to this - and plenty of swaggering outlaw bluster that I'm normally stuck dealing with in bro-country. To give Carrie Underwood some credit, there's nothing wrong with a power fantasy and it's clear tracks like 'Renegade Runaway' are just that, but it's when we start digging deeper that the holes open up. For as much as 'Church Bells' tries to marry Reba McEntire's cover of 'Fancy' with 'Goodbye Earl' minus the sense of humour, it feels nowhere near as desperate or even melodramatic, and for as much as 'Choctaw County Affair' plays in a similar vein with some pretty decent writing, Carrie and her boyfriend still end up getting off because the county jury agrees to cover for murder? Look, I can tolerate overheated southern drama - it's why 'Dirty Laundry' kind of works when Carrie finds the incriminating stains and hangs them on the line for all to see - but you need to have structure or a sense of stakes or at least a desire to go over the top to stick the landing. It's why 'Mexico' feels oddly hollow to me - she and her partner are on the run with guns and money, but where the rest of the story? It often feels like these tracks are more concerned with sketching out the fantasy for Carrie than telling what actually happened, and it can feel a little oddly self-involved at points - I was originally mostly on-board with 'Relapse' and her reconnecting with an old flame until on the bridge where she says the only person she's hurting is herself - and, you know, the guy who now has an ex trying to sleep with him so she can cope with her issues? Then again, if we're looking at more of Carrie's story, it can be a bit hit-and-miss - I found the father/daughter relationship song 'The Girl You Think I Am' rather sweet, but then you have the album closer 'What I Never Knew I Always Wanted', which is a Celine Dion-esque embrace of marriage and motherhood which is what she 'needed' and what she was 'made to be' that's positively gag-worthy. Now I don't doubt that'll probably play better to a female audience and I'm sure it's personal for Carrie, but it's hard not to notice it as just a sequel to 'Mama's Song' from Play On, which leads to my issue with the writing: it's not like many of these stories haven't been told in some form on a Carrie Underwood album or done better with more raw passion and nuance by Miranda Lambert on previous records.

And yeah, might as well piss the rest of you off: let's talk about Carrie's vocals. Does she have a huge voice with a ton of power and a potent range? Yes, and for the most part it can work for these tracks in making them feel more 'larger-than-life', but the twofold issue I've always had with Carrie's vocals is still here: subtlety and raw fire. Carrie has firepower but it always hits me like a brick, and it's rare we get a song that allows her to show off anything visceral or really cutting - she's not Lydia Loveless or Reba McEntire or Miranda Lambert. And this ties into the bigger issue: there's no subtlety. On so many of these songs Carrie starts off with a bit more restraint but before long the belting starts and I'm left wishing she had opted for more balance. Now to her credit, Carrie does try for more intimate tracks like 'The Girl You Think I Am' and 'Like I'll Never Love You Again', but again, she could do more here.

Granted, even if she had gone for more quiet restraint I'm not sure how well it would have worked, which takes us to the production and instrumentation - and let me give Jay Joyce props for probably the first time ever for finding a singer who's a natural fit for his overblown tendencies! Because just like Carrie's delivery, much of this production is loud, heavy, percussion-overloaded, and trying to force the bombast with burning guitar leads against ragged fast-picked grooves. And on the first few listens, it's not bad - I'm still baffled why 'Church Bells' barely features the titular instrument up until the final note or how the brittle beat of 'Heartbeat' is in any way a good replacement for the kick drum referenced in the lyrics, but there are moments I appreciated, like the rattling riff that opened 'Renegade Runaway' or the bluesy snarled stomp of 'Choctaw County Affair' with a great guitar tone, or the opening flutter of 'Like I'll Never Love You Again' that I'd swear sounds like it came from 'Blackout' by Muse of all things. But those moments don't obscure that many of these songs are overloaded with pounding drums to stomp flat the underweight melodies trying to build a melodic hook to match Carrie's vocals. And what's frustrating is that you can tell this was the main way the producers tried to amp up the drama and swell - instead of giving the guitars more beef and prominence in the mix, or bringing in thicker tones or different instrumentation or composing melodies that can match that dramatic swell, the drums and drum machines are given heavier punch and relying on the guitar or the synth- and steel guitar-touched background to carry a melody. And in the latter case, many of the synthesizer elements are either way too thin and spacey to blend well or go for a heavy dampness that clashes with all of the organic instrumentation like on 'Relapse'. Now that's not saying there aren't songs that can make this blend work - the organ and steel guitar combination on the slice of populist relief of 'Smoke Break' works really well, but that song really feels like an outlier on this record both in writing and making the production work.

But as a whole, while Storyteller by Carrie Underwood might some appealing stages, the actual narratives of these songs feel thin, more suited to creating fantasies for quick gratification than deeper emotional punches. And in a sense that's fine: go ahead, crank up the melodrama, I'm normally an easy sell for alpha female badass. But this record does so in a way that marginalizes the melodies just like so much modern pop and ends up feeling a lot less memorable than I hoped. Again, I acknowledge that to fans of Carrie Underwood or to a female audience some songs might hit with more impact, but for me, it's a light 6/10 and really only a recommendation if you're curious. And while country hasn't exactly been great for women this year - I'd argue that Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Lindi Ortega haven't delivered their best in 2015 - I'll remember their albums more than this.

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