Sunday, March 16, 2014
Released in January
Jennifer Nettles, one half of country-pop-rock duo Sugarland, goes it alone on her new release, That Girl, although the "debut solo album" tag that's been attached to it is a little misleading (prior to joining Sugarland, the singer fronted The Jennifer Nettles Band for three unmemorable independently released albums). The diverse styles on That Girl shouldn't come as too much of a jolt to her fans, given Nettles' varied musical background. Her self-titled band were an alt-folk outfit and Sugarland have always experimented with different sounds, as well as tackled songs in their live shows from a wide range of artists like Beyoncé, Kings Of Leon, The B-52s, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Madonna, and 80s one-hit-wonder acts like Dexy's Midnight Runners and The Dream Academy.
Strong opening track "Falling" is the lone number on That Girl written by Nettles without any collaborators, establishing the 70s-rooted organic sound that flows throughout the album's following ten songs (not including the two tracks included on the deluxe edition). It also showcases Nettles' talent for crafting affecting lyrics that evocatively set a scene for her compositions: "I stood out on the road and I watched as you were leaving/The leaves were dancing oranges and reds/And they circled all around me like confetti on fire/They were nothing when compared to the burning in my head". The soothing "Thank You", "Me Without You", and "This Angel" pay homage to the influence of 70s singer-songwriter folk-pop on the singer. The standout songs are stripped down to mostly just Nettles' powerful voice and an acoustic guitar, with some light string touches added on the latter two as the songs build. The upbeat "Moneyball" incorporates reggae elements, but the end result is rather average, while That Girl's most ambitious number, "Know You Wanna Know", only fares moderately better. Nettles co-wrote the track about the ugliness of celebrity idolatry culture with 80s pop balladeer Richard Marx, which is partially why the full-on big band swing style of the song comes as such a surprise. Nettles also pushes herself further outside the confines of Sugarland's core sound on the Latin music-inspired catchy title track and the buoyant "Jealousy". She co-wrote "That Girl" with producer/musician Butch Walker, a fellow Atlantan, and the song offers an interesting spin on "the other woman" theme from Dolly Parton's "Jolene" by taking the perspective of the woman who unknowingly has become a mistress: "A friend gave me your number to tell you watch your lover's tracks/See, I always kind of liked you so I wanna have your back/There's a good chance by the time you hear this the story's gonna say/That I came on to him, but it was never quite that way/I don't want to be that girl/With your guy/To fool you/Make you cry/Wreck it all/For one night/To be with him when he should be with you". Nettles' genre hopscotching continues with the torchy love song "This One's For You" (co-written with singer Sara Bareilles) and a couple of deeply soulful numbers in "Good Time To Cry" and a winning cover of Bob Seger's "Like A Rock". Strangely, two of the best tracks from That Girl's recording sessions aren't even included on the regular album, appearing only on the deluxe edition: "His Hands" delivers potently in both its music and domestic abuse-themed lyrics (and was likely omitted because it sounded too Sugarland-like) and the feel-good "Every Little Thing", with its bouncy ragtime piano, certainly deserved to be heard by a wider audience.
That Girl producer Rick Rubin had all the songs cut live in the studio with a group of session veterans (including Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) and the looseness that environment created for everyone involved is one of the album's core strengths. Nettles' already-established rep as one of this generation's finest vocal talents takes on even wider dimensions on this earthy and stylistically broad set that's dominated by retro influences. And while about half of That Girl's material admittedly wouldn't feel out of place on a Sugarland album, it's an indication of Nettles' bigger musical aspirations that she bravely steers away from the big arena country-rock anthems that her and Sugarland partner Kristian Bush do so adeptly.