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Album Review

Underwood straddles country-pop line

November 9, 2009

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COUNTRY
Carrie Underwood Play On
19 Recordings
ESSENTIAL: “Look at Me’’

‘American Idol’’ recently announced that it would resurrect its charity event “Idol Gives Back’’ after a year off. I’d wager it’s because they heard the song “Change’’ from “Idol’’ victor Carrie Underwood’s intermittently stirring third album, “Play On.’’

The perfectly formed slice of shame pop - complete with swoopy strings and exhorting choir - tries to combat cynicism while attempting to change the world one homeless person and underprivileged child at a time. It will undoubtedly be the charity event’s big money moment, and Underwood sings the hell out of it with her usual cool efficiency, as she does all 13 of these new songs.

With two albums under her belt, Underwood clearly knows what works for her, so much that she co-wrote seven of the tracks. She has settled comfortably into a yin-yang template set by her early hits: the Shania-style sassy rockers (“Before He Cheats’’) and the angelically reverent ballads (“Jesus, Take the Wheel’’).

The songs on “Play On’’ that fall into the first category are, unsurprisingly, a lot more fun. Underwood continues her rampage on trifling men with the album’s boot-stomping first single, “Cowboy Casanova,’’ and the chicken-fried “Songs Like This.’’ Both have the Nashville-approved allotment of fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel to pass muster as country music, but these are crossover hits waiting to happen.

The earnest ballads outnumber the uptempo stuff with a lower hit-to-miss ratio and feel a lot more generic in terms of who is/could be singing them. The best have secret weapons. On “Mama’s Song’’ it’s Underwood’s unexpected vocal understatement, on “Look at Me’’ it’s the harmony vocals of Vince Gill, which make everything better. (Out now)

SARAH RODMAN