The title of American Idol Sweetheart is surely coveted, but as Kelly Clarkson taught us it can cut as well. Both Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, two women gifted with powerful voices and all-American appeal, shot out from the AI mother ship with multiplatinum rockets: the former's Breakaway (2004) and the latter's Some Hearts (2005). While Clarkson fell back to earth with this year's dark commercial misfire My December, Underwood is taking no chances. Carnival Ride covers its bases impeccably, from the roof-raising opener ''Flat on the Floor'' to the gorgeous, torchy ballad ''I Know You Won't'' and the already-massive anthem ''So Small.''
Underwood is touting Carnival, several tracks of which she co-wrote, as her return to country roots. That's presumably because Hearts' ''Before He Cheats'' became a pop-crossover hit. In reality, ''Cheats'' was defiantly country, just blessed with a hook strong enough to transcend its twang. And the slick production on Carnival won't have anyone mistaking her for anything other than the Nashville superstar she's become. If anything, she continues to toe Hearts' down-home-girl-gone-good-slash-bad line: One moment, she is a choir angel crooning the pious inspirational ''So Small,'' the next, a saucy minx downing Cuervo on the one-night-stand stomper ''Last Name.'' Changing it up but ultimately staying the same? That's the smartest trick of all. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear ''I Know You Won't'' and the rest of Carnival Ride at AOL Music.