Carrie Underwood | Bo Bice

Some Hearts (Arista Nashville) | The Real Thing (RCA)

This year's edition of American Idol--the show's fourth season since igniting a tele-musical frenzy in 2002--was something of a triumph for the South: The program's two finalists, Oklahoma native Carrie Underwood and Alabama-born Bo Bice, proved that Dixie denizens could compete with contestants from flashier locales, and that music with a twang had a chance against sugary pop-rock and high-gloss R&B.

On Some Hearts winner Underwood seems utterly uninterested in ditching the crowd-pleasing approach emphasized by the show; this is the sort of nouveau-Nashville pop-country fluff doled out by megastars like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. But Underwood seems equally uninterested in clearing a space for herself in that commercial thicket. Beyond "Jesus, Take the Wheel," a fascinatingly overwrought ballad about finding God in the middle of a car accident, there's nothing in the music here to rival Twain's cowgirl spunk or Hill's soccer-mom spark.

Hirsute runner-up Bice is more distinctive on The Real Thing, even if his Southern-rock shtick ends up as airbrushed as Underwood's. Hiring the right song doctors helped: Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger's "You're Everything" ripples with bubblegrunge muscle, while "Nothing Without You," co-written by Jon Bon Jovi, is a tasty prom-rock confection. Bice may live to shave another day.

 
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