After winning her first two seasons of Dancing with the Stars paired with speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and race car driver Helio Castroneves, 19-year-old Julianne Hough found herself teamed with the flat-footed, abrasive Adam Corolla in the popular show’s sixth season and finished ninth, showing that Hough’s undeniable technical skill, gorgeous physical appearance and wholesome, impossibly charming personality can only do so much to overcome the limitations of her collaborators. That latter principle applies to her self-titled debut as well, which answers the question of what an album recorded by someone who grew up listening to the pop-country of Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Mindy McCready would sound like.
Not that mainstream country really needs another beautiful young blond singer at this particular moment, but Hough insists that becoming a country star, rather than a celebrity dancer, has always been her long-term career goal. To her credit, she truly attacks this project with gusto—her enthusiasm and charm are palpable throughout the record, especially on first single “That Song in My Head” as well as “Hello” and “About Life,” which cast her as someone dispensing advice to a friend. Though she doesn’t possess the same technical gifts, Hough displays infinitely more personality than Carrie Underwood. In terms of having a real attitude or presence on record, her performances recall some of McCready’s better singles from the late ‘90s, or Kellie Pickler with more power and a better sense of pitch. No one will mistake Hough for the second coming of Trisha Yearwood or even Hill, but her performance on the album is never less than ingratiating.
Unfortunately for Hough, her charm and her solid if unspectacular singing can’t overcome David Malloy’s nondescript production or mask the weaknesses of most of her material. Most of the women she grew up listening to and whose pop-country style influenced her sound were given or chose much better songs for their debut records than what poor Hough has been saddled with. “That Song in My Head” is by far the best song here, but it’s not nearly the memorable opening salvo that Yearwood’s “She’s In Love with the Boy” or Hill’s “Wild One” were. “You You You,” with its awkward word repetitions (“It’s insane sane sane/But I’d stand in front of a train train train/Just to hold your hand in the pourin’ rain rain rain” is supposed to pass for a hook) is damn near unlistenable, but it’s preferable to the clichéd purity-ring pap of “Jimmy Ray McGee” and the self-help drivel of “Help Me Help You” and “Love Yourself.” Hough really does try to sell every word of this hokum, but it’s all just so slight and so juvenile—even by the standards of a genre that’s currently agog over the supposed songwriting talents of another teenage girl—that it’s hard to stomach or take seriously. With maturity, Hough may develop better taste in material that would allow her to record an album that’s actually as likable as she is.