Review: Sugarland – The Incredible Machine (Mercury, 2010)
On their third album, modern country duo Sugarland (Jennifer Nettles-vocals, Kristian Bush-guitar/vocals) makes a bold bid for cross-over success. How well their effort succeeds depends on where you sit as a listener in the country-pop spectrum. Fans of modern country music may feel this forsakes the few threads of country roots that remain in Nashville’s productions. Ironically though, fans of earlier, twangier country music may be willing to take Sugarland’s arena-ready rock productions as just that – something fully divorced from Nashville’s faint echoes of roots music. Taken on this latter axis, Bryan Gallimore’s outsized productions – enormous drum sounds, slashing electric guitars, heavy echoes and the ubiquitous “programming” – make a good impression.
The duo’s original songs are catchy and Jennifer Nettles’ voice cuts through the rock backings like a fog cutter in a thick bank. When the productions occasionally lighten, as on the lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” the music turns into modern day bubblegum, with riffy lyrics, cute singing and a toasting bridge that suggests Gwen Stefani in Music City. One might argue about whether Sugarland’s previous albums had already moved far away from traditional country sounds, but The Incredible Machine puts the conversation to bed as the duo openly bids for modern rock success with power-ballads like “Tonight” and a heavy dose of studio effects. The closest the album comes to even modern Nashville’s notion of country is “Little Miss,” but even here the song grows from acoustic guitars into a heavily wrought production.
The reggae beat and rapping passage of “Every Girl Like Me” are sure to alienate some of the group’s long time fans, though more on principle than musical value. Ditto for the punchy pop-rock “Find the Beat Again,” which sounds as if it could be a hit for one of Disney’s teen stars. None of this is really news, as the group hinted in these directions all along, and modern country production has become a virtual second home for modern rock sounds. If you held on to your U2 tickets through Bono’s back problems, you’ll find the sound of Sugarland’s latest to your liking. You won’t find Bono’s philosophical world outlook in the lyrics, but you can shuffle this into a mid-80s mix of Simple Minds and Big Country without any tears or fears.