The path Scotty McCreery would take after being crowned king of “American Idol’s” 10th season couldn’t have been clearer. Like Carrie Underwood before him, the 17-year-old winner would renounce any pop crossover temptations, record contemporary country with a slightly traditional twist, and declare to his handlers, “Music Row, take the wheel.”
Not surprisingly, then, McCreery’s debut album, “Clear as Day,” pretty much follows the template you’d expect. With one very slight wrinkle, though: He sings high.
Or high-er, anyway, considering that we're discussing the most famous baritone of 2011. After watching McCreery on “Idol,” country pros wondered if there was really a glaring need for a mini-Josh Turner, once the novelty of hearing a high school kid sing deeper than the holler wore off. But McCreery doesn’t sound much like his idol, Turner, on “Clear as Day” after all.
Instead, pushed into his (relative) upper range by producer Mark Bright, he sounds a lot like a wholesomer Dierks Bentley, to name a country hunk with a less subwoofer-rattling baritone than Turner’s.
The good news is, the album arrives bearing far better songs than “I Love You This Much,” the coronation single that started fast but stalled on the country chart at No. 15, proving it is still possible to produce a ballad too treacly for country radio programmers.
Unfortunately, the second single, “The Trouble With Girls,” isn’t one of these superior tracks. The sweetly playful lyrics extol everything wonderful about the female of the species, concluding that “the trouble with girls is nobody loves trouble as much as me.” But the sappy music seems to have been written for a different set of words, as if McCreery were supposed to be singing about Jesus taking the wheel, not chick magnetism.
Those two numbers are part of a stretch of three consecutive ballads that bogs down the album's early going. The third song in this down-tempo trilogy is the title track, in which McCreery mourns the girl who got away – because, we eventually learn, she died in a car crash. Whether it’s a cautionary tale about drunk driving or the “fog” mentioned in the final stanza really was to blame remains ambiguous. And lugubrious.
The pace finally picks up midway through the album, as its assemblers remember that even the upper female demo that drives both “Idol” and country radio likes men (or boys) with a little bit of pep in ‘em.
And it’s once McCreery gets into a stretch of near-rockers -- like the requisite small-town anthem, “Water Tower Town,” and the requisite romance-among-the-ticks ode, “Walk in the Country” -- that McCreery seriously sounds like the winner of a Dierks doppelganger competition. If you hear Keith Urban, too, in the combination of power chords and banjo plucking, it doesn’t hurt that "Walk in the Country" is a cover of a long-forgotten number from Urban’s first album.
Though some expectations foresaw Scotty veering into ultra-traditional territory, the only selection in that vein is “Write My Number on Your Hand,” a winsome slice of lite-Western swing that answers the question: What would George Strait sound like as an apple-cheeked adolescent? (McCreery even throws in a Bob Wills-style “aaah, ha!” at the end.)
The G-rated “Clear as Day” is very much an alcohol-free and tank top-avoidant zone, but there aren't many other thematic country bases McCreedy doesn't touch, least of all the maternal one. Toward the end, he offers not one but two odes to the selfless mothers of the world, “Dirty Dishes” and “That Old King James.” Mama tried – and succeeded!
But the kid desperately needs a “tempo” song as a third single. You would have thought the second would be “Out of Summertime,” since it was a contender to be his coronation song and got leaked at the time. The lyric would be perfect for easy autumn listening… but maybe someone noticed how uncomfortably close it comes to Kenny Chesney’s “Young.”
McCreery turns 18 this week, and between that and the hurry to get post-“Idol” albums recorded, it’s hard to work up umbrage about how he lacks his own identity… though Underwood didn’t have much of one, either, when she broke out with a career-defining first single, in the hands of the same producer.
Will Scotty be beamed up to whatever obscure place Lee DeWyze currently remains marooned, or have a chance to find himself and grow into a keeper? Even after hearing his debut album, the answer’s still opaque as night.