Even within the pop landscape of today's mainstream country, Deana Carter's follow-up to her blockbuster Capitol debut surprises. Carter and co-producer Chris Farren demonstrate an uncanny instinct for hits: These 13 songs–five of which were co-written by Carter–-tour through Top 40s of many decades and genres. The musical and lyrical variety–rather than Carter's singing, which is breezy, not bold–is her strong suit. "You Still Shake Me" marries ZZ Top and raunchy Hank Jr., while "Never Comin' Down" has a sly, soul groove and wah-wah guitar that sounds like Bobbie Gentry swinging to Sheryl Crow. "Absence of the Heart" has flashes of Crystal Gayle at her torchiest, while "Angels Working Overtime," Carter's best vocal performance, has hip-hop style percussion, big, Mellancamp-esque acoustic guitars, and the bubbly, laughing voices of children–and somehow the pop dazzle doesn't swamp the intense narrative. Carter isn't making country music, but her confections can be delightful, even ambitious, pop stuff.
Along with hit singles and Fan Fair appearances, Christmas albums are one of the requirements for a successful career in major-label country music. Even artists with only one CD behind them are often compelled to make the second a collection of holiday favorites. Deana Carter's the exception that proves the rule. On the punningly titled Father Christmas (dad Fred, a veteran Nashville session man whose resumé includes Bridge over Troubled Water and work with Dylan and Waylon Jennings, is her sole accompanist here), the one-time multimillion seller for Capitol uses the form to reintroduce herself on an indie.