In her surprising run to last season's championship round on American Idol, where she finished as runner-up to Fantasia Barrino, Diana DeGarmo, 17, often came off like Kelly Clarkson's little sister. Both DeGarmo and 22-year-old Clarkson, Idol's first-season winner, were sweet Southern gals (DeGarmo from Snellville, Ga.; Clarkson from Burleson, Texas) with aw-shucks charm, girl-next-door appeal and big if bland voices. Now, as DeGarmo releases her first CD and Clarkson issues the follow-up to her double-platinum 2003 debut, Thankful, the two seem to be even more connected. They even both use producer John Shanks, who also worked on Ashlee Simpson's and Hilary Duff's latest discs, and he brings the same pop-rock chops to Blue Skies and Breakaway.
Clarkson benefits with her album's breezy midtempo title tune, a Top 10 hit that was originally featured on last summer's soundtrack of The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, and the effervescent chugger "You Found me." The singer. who cowrote six songs on Breakaway, also teams up with producer-writers Ben Moody and David Hodges, both formerly of Evanescence, for two power ballads that you could also imagine Amy Lee bringing to life. After she made like Christina Aguilera for much of Thankful, it is refreshing to hear Clarkson unleash her inner Pat Benatar on such cuts as the bracing rocker "Since U Been Gone." However, with absolutely no real edge to speak of, you get the feeling that she's just trying out another pose.
DeGarmo does a bit more posing on Blue Skies. Although most of her CD follows the same pop-rock formula as Clarkson's, with catchy but cookie-cutter numbers like "Cardboard Castles," she hedges her bets by also dabbling in country-pop (the title song) and teen pop ("Boy Like You"). She also still seems to be trying to impress the Idol judges on schmaltzy ballads like "Go On and Cry" and "Dreams" (not to be confused with "Dream, Dream, Dream," which appears two tracks later). And on her disc's finest cut, the piano-laced single "Emotional," she does her best Vanessa Carlton imitation.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Clarkson: "Breakaway"; DeGarmo: "Emotional"