Spin Factor: Carrie's pretender days may be over

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 11:45pm

She may not publicly respond to those who deem her a country pretender, but Carrie Underwood certainly challenges that notion with her latest release, Play On (Arista).

Her best answers comes on songs such as "Quitter," "Someday When I Stop Loving You" or "Look At Me," where the settings, production, instrumentation and feel are decidedly country (at least the 21st century brand anyway).

Underwood's voice boasts an authoritative punch and crisp tinge this time around as well. She's never been further away from the “crossover” sound than on tunes such as "What Can I Say" (featuring Sons of Sylvia) or "Unapologize," a composition that could just as easily be done by Miranda Lambert or Gretchen Wilson.

While she likely will never satisfy people expecting or demanding 1950s style honky-tonk tearjerkers, Underwood's work on Play On shows her country credentials are legitimate.

50 Cent
Before I Self Destruct (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

These acerbic, snarling chronicles are 50 Cent's most combative and inspired rhymes since his powerful debut release.

"Crime Wave," "Gangsta's Delight," "I Got Swag" and "Death To My Enemies" feature chilling, fierce verbal forays, delivered in a manner that doesn't so much follow the beats as punctuate and propel them. "Psycho" matches (pits) him against Eminem in an inspired battle royal, while Ne-Yo's whirling vocals contrast swaggering themes in "Baby By Me."

This isn't calm, polite, pop-oriented rap, and its language, tone and attitude represent the reflections of a figure unconcerned (at least on record) with public perception or response.

John Mayer
Battle Studies (Columbia)

From the 1960s style cover with a contemplative pose to a host of mid-tempo, far from sentimental numbers that address the down side of romance and relationships, John Mayer on his latest release talks far more about pain and loss than warmth and triumph.

"Heartbreak Warfare" leads off the disc, followed by the forlorn "All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye," and other variations on dismay like "Who Says," "Perfectly Lonely" and "Do You Know Me."

As usual, Mayer nicely displays his guitar chops and blues roots with a smart cover of "Crossroads" and delivers a ready-for-pop radio hit, "Half of My Heart," a feelgood piece that teams him with Taylor Swift.

Still, Battle Studies' overall sensibility is much more downbeat than sentimental or optimistic.

Boyz II Men
Love (Decca/UMG)

Now down to a trio, Boyz II Men's three-part harmonies and vocal numbers still sound just as gorgeous and appealing as their former quartet arrangements.

With American Idol's Randy Jackson manning the production duties, the group excels with a menu that ranges from vintage ballads ("Misty Blue," "Cupid") to funk ("Shining Star"), pop ("In My Life," "Time After Time"), and one foray into jazz/show tune territory ? a soaring collaboration with Michael Buble' on "When I Fall in Love."

Though an anchoring bass/baritone voice would add a nice low-end touch, Boyz II Men's soothing tones remain among the most inviting in pop, rock or soul.

The Dave Rawlings Machine
A Friend of a Friend (Acony)

Ace singer/songwriters Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch make a compelling vocal duo, and have also penned several numbers on their latest outing.

The best songs include "Ruby," "How's About You" and "It's Too Easy," each a tune that's lyrically insightful and musically sophisticated, yet also short and straightforward.

They smoothly incorporate aspects of folk, country, bluegrass and even the blues ("Bells of Harlem") into their compositions, with Rawlings' multi-instrumental mastery augmented by Welch's emphatic singing and accompaniment.

Top guest players and writers like Old Crow Medicine Show's Kyle Secor and vocalist/instrumentalist Willie Watson provide additional clout and edge to an outstanding, inventive set.