Jennifer Nettles – That Girl – album review

Produced by Rick Rubin, beardy celebrity producer, it’s tough to categorise Jennifer Nettles’ new solo record, which finally arrived through my door this morning, but (at time of writing) is still not available for download from the UK iTunes store. Whereas the delay to the Sheryl Crow country record irritated me enough to boycott the album altogether, Jennifer Nettles is for me an artist of far greater stature, so I sucked it up and ordered an import CD.

(It used to be that I reserved CD purchases for my favourite artists across the board; now it’s just those whose pissant record labels don’t do simultaneous global releases.)

In Crow’s case, it appeared the record label, in their deeply out-of-touch way, delayed (and kept delaying) until the artist was available for promotional duties (a BBC Radio 2 session). It’s likely that they’re doing the same for Nettles. By all means, promote the record properly to the general public when the artist is available, but at least provide a without-fanfare availability to those who have been waiting to get hold of the record since the artist tweeted that they were in the studio.

So where were we? Categorisation. The last track on this is a bluesy cover of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock”, so you could put this under “rock”, no problem. Nettles is known for her work with country duo Sugarland, so you could call this country – but it’s not. Of which more below. The penultimate track, too, is a bluesy song, so, Jennifer sings the blues. The other nine tracks, however, are just your standard rock-pop, with added Nettle rash.

Produced by a rock/hip-hop producer, and with standard pop-rock instrumentation (Guitar, bass, drums, keys – the latter by Ian McLagan), this is a pop-rock record. Not country. Even Sugarland aren’t really country. On this, there are no pedal steel guitars, no dobros, no banjo, mando, or fiddle. There is nothing to make this sound remotely country, which leads us to Nettles’ big problem.

She has an incredible singing voice, and deserves a wider audience. Me, I’d prefer another Sugarland album, but the band has been on hiatus for a couple of years, with Kristian Bush putting out his songs on Music Mondays, and Nettles going for this glossy, Rubin-produced attempt at a breakthrough crossover product.

Has it worked? I love this record, but I don’t think it has.  The album peaked at #5 on the Billboard top 200 album chart, and has slipped down to 12 in its second week on the chart. Meanwhile, over on the Billboard Country Albums chart, it’s been at #1 for two weeks. Hardly crossing over, then. The lead single, “That Girl” peaked at #57 on the Billboard Airplay chart, and only managed #37 in the Country Singles chart.

So what are the record company doing? Clearly, they’ll always struggle with sexist country radio, but they’ve also failed to break into the Beyoncé, Lorde, Adele, Katy Perry area. So is it just that Jennifer Nettles isn’t good enough to be in such exalted female vocal company? I think you’ll find not. This is a supreme songwriting and vocal talent. I defy anyone to hear a single track of this and not think she has a fantastic voice. Furthermore, I defy anyone to listen to a single Sugarland album and not be astonished at the sheer number of brilliant songs. They’ve released four platinum albums and three of their albums have been #1 in both the Country and Top 200 Billboard charts.

The irony is that Sugarland only exists because three talented songwriters couldn’t get arrested as solo artists. It seems  as if – even after all that success – Jennifer Nettles on her own still can’t get arrested. Perhaps her voice doesn’t fit in with current fashions. People are attuned to Autotune these days.

This solo outing should have been a massive success. Sure, pissing around with release dates and pre-publicising it way too much was a mistake. I don’t think the title track was the best choice of single, either, but here we are.

This is good. I’d rather it was more country, and – as I said – I’d rather it was full-fat Sugarland, but there’s no denying this woman can write a song and carry a tune. The production sounds great, there is (as in all Sugarland albums) no filler, and the two closing bluesy numbers, including the Bob Seger cover, are immediate favourites.

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