Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride

Carrie Underwood
Carnival Ride

Carrie Underwood’s been spending a lot of her time lately rebutting her detractors, or as she calls them, “the haters.”  Let me go on the record and say, I’m not a hater.

That’s hardly news to regular readers.   As I’ve said many times before, I think Underwood is the most technically gifted female vocalist to come along since Trisha Yearwood back in 1991.    Throughout the course of Carnival Ride, Underwood confirms my belief, turning in some vocal performances that are as fresh and creative as they are extraordinary.  The most exciting part of listening to this record is hearing what Underwood will do with her voice.  Rather than just going for sheer power, she often adjusts her volume for effect.  On the goosebumps-inducing “I Know You Won’t”, she stretches out the notes in a way that adds an intense desperation to a fairly pedestrian lyric.

Unfortunately, this is an album chock full of pedestrian lyrics.   As a singer, Underwood is phenomenal, sounding fantastic on every single track.   The problem is that too many of the songs rely on her vocal talents to camouflage how very ordinary they are.     Message songs without much of a message, like lead single “So Small” and “Wheels of the World”, showcase Underwood’s endearing sincerity but lack real depth and insight.

Even less effective is “Last Name”, a transparent attempt to recreate the mega-success of “Before He Cheats.”    Again, she sounds fantastic, but this female rewrite of  Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” is as trite as it is forced.      The album reaches its nadir with “The More Boys I Meet”, which has the wince-inducing hook “The more boys I meet, the more I love my dog.”

After a generation of intelligent, challenging female country artists expanded the genre’s possibilities, it is depressing to hear the only female artist that country radio is automatically adding use her window of opportunity to sing that line.   As country music’s female standard-bearer, Underwood needs to do much better than this, especially since the only other woman country radio is fond of is even younger than her.

Carnival Ride is at times very disappointing, but give Underwood a lyric worthy of her talent, and she knocks it out of the park.  “Just a Dream” may be the one song on this project that can match the impact of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.” It’s a powerful story song that finds a young widow mourning the death of her soldier husband, and it’s attention to detail – right down to the folded-up flag – is painfully realistic.    The chorus is, word-for-word, the inner monologue of many a widow, and Underwood sings it so powerfully that you almost think she might be able to turn the tragedy into just a dream through the sheer will of her singing.

Another highlight, her cover of Randy Travis’s “I Told You So”,  shows that she shines best when given a simple melody and sparse production.    Actually, the production is only sparse on that track when compared to the rest of the album, since there are far too many bells and whistles on nearly every cut.

Underwood never sounded better than on the charity single “I’ll Stand By You” earlier this year, when it was just her voice against an acoustic backdrop.    I have no idea if this album will continue her commercial winning streak, though I have no reason to think that it won’t.    But for her to truly find her artistic voice, she needs better producers, who will push for stronger material and realize that a singer as good as her doesn’t need two tons of production.

Carnival Ride is a good enough album, and it wouldn’t be a disappointment at all if she wasn’t capable of so much more.

Buy: Carnival Ride


  1. I haven’t been around much to read many reviews of this cd, but I tend to agree with yours on certain points. The production does tend to go a bit overboard on a lot of this album. I have always said that anything she does acoustic or accapella I absolutely adore because it is just her voice which I love.
    I can see where you are coming from on looking at the lyrics, but listening to interviews, and just being the general age that Carrie Underwood is, I can understand why she chose these songs. Oddly enough I can completly relate to most of these lyrics, now whether that makes me lacking depth or insight I don’t know. I think probobly just living a normal day to day life makes these general lyrics pretty much hit a huge demographic which is what the lable is looking for.

    I can see what you are saying though, as far as what she is capable of, and I can only hope that in the future, when Sony BMG is not so dependent on Carrie Underwood sales that she will hit all her high points as an artist in one CD.

    Fingers crossed for an acoustic album in the future!!!

  2. First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate your thoughtful posts on Country Universe. I have to disagree with you, however, on several points with regard to Carrie’s Carnival Ride album. Songs like “Last Name” and “The More Boys I Meet” are songs with a good sense of humor which seems to be something you don’t appreciate. Not every song needs to be serious or address some fundamental aspect of human existence which is what you seem to be looking for. I do agree with you that some of the songs are a bit overproduced, also too many songs kind of fade out at the end which I don’t like, I much prefer definitive endings to songs – I’m talking about the musical production here not the singing. Finally, I do think that in addition to “Just A Dream” a number of other songs on the album do have substantive lyrics (as you call them) like “You Won’t Find This” and “Twisted”. I also really like the lyrics to “Crazy Dreams” which I think are well written and to the point.

  3. I think you make a lot of valid points about the lack of artistry evident in some of these songs (I’m especially glad to hear that you too are unimpressed with the writing in “So Small”), although I agree with above reviewer’s comment about humor; if anything, I find the “The More Boys I Meet” charming (overproduction aside) because the song itself is utterly aware of how stupid it is. Country music writers have a long history of this sort of intentional “dumbing down” (think Roger Miller, Brad Paisley), wherein a song’s blatant inanity serves not only to merit a few passing chuckles, but also to artfully alleviate the writer of the very serious (and possibly emotionally taxing) mentality they might in regards to a specific story or memory. In other words, part of what makes some of the best country music so deceptively sophisticated is that it understands the need to not take itself too seriously. It’s not as if the writers of “The More Boys I Meet” came up with the hook and seriously thought, “oh snap! How clever!”. They more likely wrote it and thought, “wow. What ridiculous fun.” I don’t deny that country music too often abuses this principle in its quest for hit songs (Lord knows not every stupid pun deserves its own single), but I think in this case, Carrie pulls it off.

    That rant aside, I mostly just can’t believe you wrote a review of this album without specifically mentioning the startling passion and vocal command Carrie exhibits in “Flat on the Floor” which, though also fairly overproduced, is a clear stand-out among the tracks.

    Love what you do on this site, keep it up!

  4. Dan,

    I’m a huge fan of Roger Miller, though I don’t know that I agree that he was intentionally dumbing down his lyrics. I think he was making brilliantly odd observations (my favorite being “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd”.) I can see where you’re coming from with the Underwood track being intentionally dumbed down, but I guess I just don’t find it funny.

    Regarding “Flat on the Floor”, I agree it’s a fantastic vocal performance. I didn’t single it out because the vocals are amazing throughout the whole project, and I chose to use “I Know You Won’t” as the best example of that, but you’re right. “Floor” also demonstrates that rare combination of passion and control that few vocalists have. In terms of country music women, we’re basically talking Trisha and Wynonna and that’s about it. You’d have to go back to Connie and Patsy to find it again.

  5. “I think Underwood is the most technically gifted female vocalist to come along since Trisha Yearwood back in 1991”

    Does the name Martina McBride ring a bell?

  6. There have been way more talented singers than Underwood to come along since Trisha Yearwood; among them Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans, Chely Wright, Jo Dee Messina, Julie Roberts, and solo-Wynonna.

  7. Carrie Underwood is in the same leauge as Martna, as far as I’m concerned. Rimes is very talented, but Carrie is probably about equal to her. Sara, Julie, and Jo Dee? I don’t think so. Sara can be good live sometimes, and also horrid. I heard she bragged once about using autotune on a song she could “never” recreate live. Bragging about fixed vocals is not something a true singer who cares about the art of their music does. Chely Wright is nothing special, and she is nowhere near the likes of powerhouses Carrie, Martina, Leann and Trisha. Jo Dee is also average- good, but not great. I don’t know why she deserves to mentioned in the same breathe as any powerhouse vocalist?!

    I own Julie’s first album, but every time I heard her live she was pretty bad.

    Wynona is more worthy to be mentioned with Carrie, Martina and co.

  8. Eric, I can’t exactly agree with you on Julie Roberts or Jo Dee. To me, both of them are only a little above average singers, especially Roberts. I do tend to prefer LeAnn’s, Martina’s, Trisha’s, Wynonna’s and Sara’s voices to Carrie’s though. Trisha is the only one of this list with consistently good music, however.

  9. My favorite is still Suzy Bogguss. I don’t think she’s ever missed a note. I thought her music was consistently good however most country music fans didn’t agree leading to her switch to light jazz. Live performances to me are the true test of a singer since pro tools can make a mediocre singer sound good. The other female country artists I’ve seen in concert who combined a strong voice and the ability to sing on key include Trisha, Kathy Mattea, Terri Clark, Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jamie O’Neal, Lisa Brokop, Aussie Melinda Schneider, Tricia Walker, Rissi Palmer and, last weekend, Lari White. Although I like their sound better than Carrie, I would like to see Carrie some day, as well as Martina, Jo Dee, Pam T, Wynonna, Kellie Coffey (if she ever tours again) and Emily West.

  10. But since this post is about “Carnival Ride,” I will give my two cents. (:

    It’s an average country-pop record to me; nothing better than any other watered-down album out of Nashville. That being said though, I did enjoy the album, I just feel like Carrie’s superb vocals don’t match her material.

    The Stand-out tracks for me:

    1. “Just A Dream- My favorite song from the very first listen of the album. These are probably the best recorded vocals I have heard from Carrie. She actually shows emotion in this vocal, which was not really heard on any “Some Hearts” track. Her live performances have been above and beyond as well; nothing shows her connection, respect and love for the song better than her 2008 CMA’s performace. It took an already excellent song and vocal to a whole new level in my opinion; not to mention the video is by far her best.

    I Told You So: I’ll admit, I’ve never heard Travis’s version of the song, and I’m actually not crazy about the single version. However, her 2009 ACM performance took my level of respect for the song and Carrie’s interpitation of it to a whole different level.

    I Know You Won’t: A great love-gone-sour song, and Carrie’s vocals are absolutely stunning. I got chills when I heard her knock the wind out of it at the People’s Choice Awards.

    So Small: The song is chilched and somewhat cheesy, but Carrie makes it beleivable with her vocals; she really shows off her range here. Her performance of So Small at the 2007 CMA’s is in my top five of live performances from her as well.

    The Rest: “Flat On The Floor” is a great country-rocker. It’s not a great song, but Carrie shows a lot of personality in the vocals, and it’s an enjoyable listen.

    “All American Girl- I really like this song and I think it is a great ode to father\daughter relationships simply because of chorus, which shows how a lot of fathers feel about their daughters. The song is pretty chilched though, from the plug about cheerleaders and football players to the pink and blue blankets.

    “Get Out Of This Town: Again, Underwood shows personality here and the song is a great one for a girls night on the town, but from a artistic standpoint it’s average.

    “Crazy Dreams”: The song obvious relates to Carrie perfectly, but I think it’s the worst upbeat song on the album.

    Last Name: I like the recorded version, but it doesn’t quite have the same spunk, spark, and growl that “Before He Cheats” does. I hate to revert back to live performances here, but I think Carrie does resonate with it very wel live, and she shows plenty of personality. Watch her 2008 American Idol performance of the song and it’s easy to understand. (:

    “You Won’t Find This-” The vocals make for a pleasant listen, and this is one of my favorite Underwood songs, but the lyrics are lacking somewhat.

    “The More Boys I Meet-” This is a fun song, and it fits Carrie perfectly, but for some reason the song does nothing for me.

    “Twisted-” Again, this is an enjoyable listen with great vocals, but it’s nothing special and certaintly won’t be a song to rememeber years from now.

    “Wheel Of The World: A good song to end the album, and Carrie shows restraint here while showing personality. I think she really connects with her audience on this one.

  11. Leeann: I just might agree with you on Julie – she isn’t as technically gifted as the rest, but she has a much warmer and much more enjoyable voice than Carrie. Jo Dee Messina however, has control and power beyond most singers. I’d put her in the top tier for all vocalists.

  12. I really place JoDee,Julie,LeAnn, and Chely all average vocalists. Sara has a unique sounds but her pitch is usually off, especially live, and the power isnt there. LeAnn was impressive at the age of 13…but as a adult she is just another singer. Julie,Chely and JoDee, I am just not hearing it, they are good but the control and power isnt there at anywhere near the same level. Martina is powerful, but she dosent have the same knack for conveying emotion the way Trisha Yearwood does. Trisha is a vocalist of few extremes but rather a equal balance of all aspects of a good vocalist.
    I really dont think any artist since 1991 has surpassed her, Carrie has come close but isnt quite there. But she has probally come the closest. I just wish there was a better choice in production and song choice in her catalog.

  13. It’s really irrelevant if she gets better producers and better songs since she can’t emote. Listen to “I Know You Won’t” – powerful vocal, but completely void of any human emotion.

  14. “She can’t emote.” I absolutely disagree with that 100%. That could be said for the begining of her career, but not know. Watch her performance of “Just A Dream” at the 2008 CMA’s to see how much her emotional connections have improved. Watch her Opry performance of “I Know You Won’t”- if that not being emotionally invested I don’t know what is. Her performance of “I Told You So” at the 2008 ACM’s was both breathtaking and connective.

  15. Despite any real or imagined pitch problems Sara Evans may have, the fact remains she has one of the warmest, most expressive pure Country voices in the business today. She has that elusive commodity known as “character” in her vocals.

    That quote about her not being to reproduce “Niagra” in concert is more of an admission, not a boast. I think she deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

    I just saw Sara in concert for the eleventh time this summer, and to say she is not a power vocalist is simply not accurate. She may not be quite Martina’s equal in that regard, but she is quite capable of blowing her audience away..her improvised ending of her concert version of I Could Not Ask For More is a perfect example, also A Real Fine Place to Start, and many of her codas at the tail end of quite a few of her songs are loud, clear and mostly dead-on pitch perfect. If anything, Sara overdoes it a little on these endings.

    Regarding Carrie, cleary she has abundant vocal skills, but in order to develop some real artistic maturity I think it’s more important for her to connect with her own inner artistic vision, (to the degree that she has one) than it is to find the “right” producer. In addition, of course, to finding some better, more authentically Country material.

    (I wish Sara would RE-connect with her artistic vision as well)

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