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Carrie Underwood, Play On (19/Arista Nashville)

Note: Underwood’s label didn’t make her new album available early for press; Play On is out today.

If it seems vaguely insulting to call the smashingly successful Idol alum’s material formulaic, know at least that it is, three albums in, one the most well-honed formulas in the business. Underwood’s M.O.—equal parts good-riddance-to-bad-boys stompers and fervent, string-swelling balladry—has served her well, and she’s no fool.

Hard-charging rocker “Undo It,” with its stuttering power-chord chorus (“I wanna uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-undo it”) gives first single “Casanova” a run for its kiss-off glory; the banjo-goosed revenge anthem “Songs Like This” comes in a close third. Inevitably, the saucy stuff, which she embodies with easy, appealing verve, tends to eclipse the ballads, which too often substitute slick Hallmark-card sentimentality for genuine affect.

“Change” is an admirable if inevitably treacly call for social awareness and action (think John Mayer’s “Waiting On the World to Change,” lady-Nashville style); “Temporary Home” is the sonic equivalent of a Keane painting. She does better on more personal pleas like the aching, prettily melodic “Look at Me” and “What Can I Say,” a hit-the-big-notes duet with Clark brothers trio Sons of Sylvia. As always, her vocal ability is beyond reproach; a crack in the immaculately polished veneer, however, would be welcome too. Grade: B Download This: “Cowboy Casanova”

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