Thursday, January 16, 2014

album review: 'that girl' by jennifer nettles

Let's go back to 2010, specifically the mainstream charts. The club boom is in full force, and Ke$ha's 'Tik Tok' will top the Billboard Hot 100 Year End Chart. And even though 'Need You Now' by Lady Antebellum will be a close second, it's one of the few country songs that managed to run the gauntlet and chart at all this year. Say what you will about 2013's confused, often boring year-end chart, it at least had variety, which isn't exactly what you could say about 2010. And country barely notched anything on that year-end chart at all, the ones that did courtesy of pop/adult-alternative crossover success in the vein of Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, and the Band Perry.

But nestled near the bottom of the chart was a fluke single from the country duo Sugarland titled 'Stuck Like Glue', which along with Orianthi's 'According To You' and Sara Bareilles' 'King Of Anything' stood out on the chart as being decidedly different. Now 'Stuck Like Glue' wasn't better than either of those songs, but it was definitely unique, half characterized by instrumentation that balanced quirk and accessibility and half by lead singer Jennifer Nettles' distinctly memorable voice. It's a bit hard to characterize: she sounds a bit like a country version of Shakira singing with gum in her mouth on that particular track, and though it was pleasant, it was peculiar enough to get distracting.

And yet, after Sugarland had their breakthrough hit on the mainstream charts, they didn't really do much else, mostly due circumstances outside the music, with a stage collapse in 2011 that killed seven people and Jennifer Nettles taking time off to have a baby. What's important to note, though, is that The Incredible Machine (the album 'Stuck Like Glue' was on) wasn't really well-received by critics - they called it a pop sellout and considered it a big step away from Sugarland's first three decidedly country albums. And thus when I picked up Jennifer Nettles' solo album That Girl, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would she return to her country roots, or would she continue in the pop-country direction that Sugarland had been on before?

Well, in this case it was the former, and she got pretty good results from it, as Jennifer Nettles' That Girl is a pretty good album. Not great, but it effectively succeeds with a selection of solid country tunes that are very listenable and very few, if any, duds. However, the more times I've listened to it, the less I'm certain that it plays to her strengths, which makes me think this album could have been a bit better.

So let me explain, and let's start with Jennifer Nettles herself. As I mentioned before, one of her most distinguishing factors is her voice, which has a lot of unique personality and flavour, and it helps she's got a lot of charisma to support this album. But her voice is a better fit for upbeat exuberance with a lot of quirky smiles and offbeat charm, and that's not quite the direction Nettles chooses to go, instead opting for slower, adult-alternative-inspired country that doesn't feel as comfortable for her. She does has emotional range in this category, and songs like 'Me Without You' prove that she's capable of subtler moments, but they aren't precisely her strong suit.

Now part of this is linked to the instrumentation and production - which are both good, let me stress this, but I wouldn't call them exceptional. The album doesn't exactly start with a lot of energy, and there are only really three or four songs on this record that have a pulse or a solid beat or can match her Jennifer Nettles' personality. And as much as I did appreciate the earthy, organic production that captured a lot of rich flavour, I do wish the album could have had more energy or gone to a richer well of instrumental experimentation. As it is, we get a lot of tasteful muted pianos and string sections that are very pretty, but I'm not sure they're a great fit for Nettles' voice, which doesn't fit as well into the more conventional 'lounge singer' style that the instrumentation keeps trying to cultivate. The album's instrumentation seems decidedly more mature, and given that Nettles is 39 and has kids, I'm not entirely surprised by this choice in comparison with the pop country of Sugarland's last album.

But here's why I'm not sure it was the best choice, and it comes down to the two songs I really genuinely like on this album: 'Moneyball' and 'Know What You Wanna Know'. The first is a witty little observation about how she's going to hold to her principles against the passage of time and the rise of modernity, and there's a surprising amount of charm to the song I really liked. And 'Know What You Wanna Know' is a pretty damn smart indictment of celebrity culture, both the celebrities who act out to get the smallest bits of attention and on the society who feeds into and encourages that sort of behaviour. The interesting thing is these songs still have that maturity and insight that Jennifer Nettles is trying to cultivate, but they also have that upbeat quirky sense of fun that sounds so comfortable coming from her. It's proof that if she wants to make smarter, more mature music in the vein of songwriters like Brandy Clark, she can, while doing it her own way that's defiantly unique. 

That's also why I feel the songs she wrote in a quieter vein don't quite work as well. They still work, mind you - Jennifer Nettles is still a good songwriter, and she's a good enough performer to pull them off - but she doesn't quite elevate the material into anything special. The one big exception is 'Me Without You', where Nettles is dealing with being on her own after a bad relationship, and it's smart and nuanced enough to bely her emotional delivery, but the rest of the songs in this vein don't quite have the same weight. The issue is partially with Nettles' delivery, but I feel some of the songwriting doesn't quite have the sharpness or unique personality to stand out in the same way. She's best with sharp, well-timed bits of wit - which tends to come out most effectively in faster songs, or at least with more risky subject matter, the latter of which we don't quite see enough of on this record.

So in the end, That Girl is a pretty damn good record with a few glittering highlights that are truly special. But even the two songs I'd brand as duds ('Jealousy' for being a little too catty for Nettles' to convincingly pull off, and 'Thank You' for just being dull) aren't bad by any stretch, and that's saying something. However, it's one of those records that I feel should have been better, maybe with a little more flair in the songwriting or instrumentation, or maybe even just a quicker pace. With that, I'm still giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation, so if you're looking for a pretty solid new country album from an artist with a fair amount of wit and charm, look up Jennifer Nettles' That Girl - you shouldn't be disappointed.

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