Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jennifer Nettles "That Girl" Album Review

     Jennifer Nettles has created her first solo album, following years as part of the trio turned duo Sugarland. Sugarland started out very promising, with a solid debut album. Unfortunately, they slowly but surely headed down the pop road with each album as they went. When Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles announced a brief departure from the duo, I was curious to see where they would go on their own. While the duo lost their way, Sugarland released some great music, including "Baby Girl", "Want To", and the modern masterpiece, "Stay". Jennifer Nettle's album That Girl is pretty far from Sugarland, but it is certainly an interesting album worth your attention.

    I was trying to predict the road Jennifer would go down with this album. Total pop? Rock edge? Traditional country? Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Jennifer took a route I never expected, but am pleasantly surprised with. That Girl is a mix of traditional American pop of yesteryear with country, Latin, and jazz influences peppered throughout. It is certainly an artistic and adventurous album. Whether you like it or not, she took a lot of chances with this song collection and that's something to be admired.  It was produced by Rick Rubin, who is known for making great albums with artistic merit.  I'd love to see him utilized more by today's big country stars.

     The first two tracks are probably the best of the album. "Falling" is a solid country story song, much in the vein of "Strawberry Wine". Jennifer sings of first love and lost innocence with passion and power that makes you believe every word she says. The song builds into a cool country style with a lot of piano to give it a unique sound that is unlike anything else you would hear on the radio. "Me Without You" is the album's second track and second single. This is a song much in the structure of "Stay", which is soft instrumentation and solid power vocals from Jennifer. The song is one of empowerment, both in the lyrics and the sound. Jennifer sings of the freedom and new beginnings she sees when she is free of her jilted love, and the arrangement is all Jennifer. The music is there where it needs to be to keep the song flowing, but it is totally driven by Jennifer and the melody. That is the best way to build a ballad in my book.

     "That Girl" was the first single from the album, and its a very interesting song. The arrangement is more akin to Shakira than Sugarland, but Jennifer nails it. The whole feel of the song, with the Latin rhythm and solid storytelling, is totally unique on country radio right now. You need your song to stand out, make people listen. This song does that masterfully. I wasn't sure about it on first listen, but the melody is infectious and really grows on you with each listen. To me, this song is actually an answer song to "Jolene", the monster hit and amazing song by the great Dolly Parton. The song progresses with Jennifer explaining to a friend how it may appear she was trying to take her man, but it wasn't really that way. At one point, she mentions that her name in the song is Jolene. If you look at the lyrics to Jolene, it makes perfect sense. I'd love to hear if that was the intention. She may have said it was at some point, and if so I apologize, but I haven't seen it reported anywhere. Either way, its an interesting song that is not only catchy, but presents interesting conversation about it.

     "This Angel" is another song that really stood out, as it features Jennifer at her best, which is vocal led songs with sparse instrumentation. "Like A Rock" is an interesting cover of the Bob Segar classic. Jennifer has that distinct twang that makes everything she sings sound country, even when the song itself isn't really. That is evident throughout the whole album. Many of the songs sound like 70's pop music with big band arrangements and bouncy vocals, but she still makes it feel like it belongs in the country category, even if it's fringe. The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are well worth the buy. "Every Little Thing" is a fun song featuring more of that 70's pop feel, and "His Hands" is an excellent story song that is haunting and thought provoking.

     Overall, its tough to simply call That Girl a "country" album. It has so many elements to it, country is too narrow. This is an American music album. That doesn't mean it isn't good. If you are looking for a honky-tonker, don't touch this album. If you want something that features well written songs and real lyrics and arrangements, even if they aren't hardcore country, then this is a great album. I wasn't expecting much based on the last Sugarland album, but I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised with That Girl.

Standout Tracks: "That Girl", "Falling", "Me Without You", "This Angel", "His Hands"

"That Girl"


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