New CD review: Jennifer Nettles

  • Updated: January 18, 2014 - 2:00 PM

“That Girl,” by Jennifer Nettles

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Jennifer Nettles, “That Girl” (Mercury Nashville)

The four-word phrase that’s fast becoming a four-letter word in pop music is “produced by Rick Rubin.” The eminence-grise phase of Rubin’s career began with projects — Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers — in which he distilled complex artists to hard, essential cores. He became the legend whisperer. Last year, Kanye West benefited from Rubin’s trademark gifts of reduction, but West was a maximalist in search of severity, a talent that could meet Rubin at eye level, or above.

Generally, though, those who make the trek out to Rubin’s Shangri-La Studio, in Malibu, Calif., are supplicants: They want something from Rubin they don’t find in themselves. For a great but unimaginative singer such as Nettles, frontwoman of the genial and sometimes ambitious country outfit Sugarland, securing Rubin to produce her solo debut album, “That Girl,” is a loud plea to be taken seriously, a coup and also a waste of energy.

At minimum, “That Girl” does work that Sugarland albums, strong as they sometimes have been, never could. Sugarland excels at two things: goofy rural charm and blunt-force melodrama, although it’s the lighthearted side that truly sets it apart from the rest of Nashville. On her own, Nettles is free to chase her muse, which may not be a more exciting, or more challenging, prospect than what she’s been doing for a decade.

On this always pleasant and occasionally more-than-that album, the chase leads her to a couple of songs (“This Angel,” about a newborn, and “Thank You”) delivered with Christian-rock restraint, and also to “This One’s for You,” written by Nettles with Sara Bareilles, perhaps for a Carole King-impression competition. On a couple of songs, “Moneyball” and the surprisingly rowdy “Know You Wanna Know,” Nettles sings about the modern world as if her lyrics were written by a random-word generator. There is also a breathy cover of Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s “Like a Rock” that imbues the song with soft intensity.

Only rarely does this album capture Nettles’ remarkable voice, a twang-thick burr with real soul-music depth. It flutters beautifully on “Falling” and gets winningly raspy on the end of the outstanding title track. But she never truly lets it loose. Perhaps she believes quiet is her real milieu.

JON CARAMANICA,

New York Times

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