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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Night Moves – I wonder who’s kissing her now?

Night Moves (album)

David Hepworth blogged some time ago about the album Back in ’72, released in 1973 by Bob Seger, pointing out that he had it on vinyl, and that it had (unusually) never been released on CD. He was wrong, of course: in this wild west age, it is available on CD (apparently, this is an Argentinian release), but how official that availability is is unclear.

Seger is one of the famous iTunes holdouts, who lasted longer than many when it came to making his music available to download. Even now, you can only buy one compilation and two live albums through iTunes. If you want to get hold of, say, Night Moves, you’re going to have to buy it on CD – or use YouTube, a downloader, and your own cheekiness to assemble the album yourself. Not that I would ever do such a thing. *cough* I quite admire Seger’s stand. Obviously, it’s no skin off his nose, given the meagre source of income that iTunes downloads would be in comparison to his concert tours and income from computer games.

So I bought the iTunes comp. I don’t know why. I think John Scalzi tweeted something about “Night Moves” and it made me think, I’d never even sampled Bob Seger, having dismissed him early on as a low-rent Springsteen copyist. I was wrong about that, of course. Back in ’72 pre-dates Springsteen’s first album (give or take a Steel Mill bootleg), and while Night Moves was clearly inspired by Springsteen, it’s different. And Seger’s voice is straight out of Detroit.

I don’t get many people listening to my jams on This is My Jam – you can count the plays on the fingers of one hand – one Simpsons hand, much of the time – so for anything to get more than 5 plays is remarkable. As of this writing, the song “Night Moves” has had 9 plays, two comments (I never get comments) and six likes. Now, I’ve put some pretty fucking ace classic tracks onto my Jam page over the months, so what is it about “Night Moves” that makes it so different? I imagine that if I was someone with social skills and some kind of profile the play count would go through the roof.

The song seems to work on a couple of levels, partly aided by its own structure. The lyrics are a bit awkward, too. I think sometimes people cleave to an awkward lyric more than they would a perfect one. The chord sequence is very straightforward, meaning that any idiot could play it. And in some sense, like a Dylan number, it does’t feel quite finished: it’s a work in progress. The song begins in 1962, and with one meaning of the title phrase. By the end, it’s shifted to looking back at 1962 from 14 years later, with a new meaning for the title phrase. The third layer of nostalgia comes from the fact that the track is from 1976, and not only do they not make ’em like that any more, they can’t. The song itself is a musical version of the movie American Graffiti which came out in 1973, with the same sense of nostalgia for a decade or so before.

From this perspective, it seems slightly ridiculous that there was so much nostalgia in the mid-1970s for just a decade earlier. It’s as if we, here in 2013, were getting all misty-eyed about 2002. 1962 is that year before everything changed forever. In some ways, things changed for the better (the end of deference, the fucking Beatles), and in some ways a simpler (more sexist, more racist, less colourful and nuanced) way of life that had something to recommend it was gone forever. qv. Pleasantville for more on that theme.

1962 was the year I was born.

1976, 37 years ago, stands at the the cusp of the change in recording technique, from the three-mics-on-the-drumkit to the mic-on-every-drum technique that came in around the time of Who Are You and Damn the Torpedoes. More than that, of course, it sits at that awkward historical place, what you might call “classic rock” just before punk came to burn it all down. Just as Bruce Springsteen seemed old fashioned in 1978, Bob Seger was beginning to be old news. People looking back at that era now, people my age who might have been looking the other way at the time, find something in “Night Moves” that fills a hole.

’76 was 14 years on from ’62, and I think this is what Scalzi was tweeting about. 14 years on from 1976 was 1990. “Night Moves” comes from longer ago now than “Heartbreak Hotel” was distant in 1976.  And the fact is, it wasn’t that big of a hit to start with. #45 on the UK singles chart? #4 on the Billboard Hot 100? To us, now, “Night Moves” stands in the same historical position as Glen Miller‘s “Moonlight Serenade”, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Judy fucking Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” did to it.

Perhaps the hit song that most closely resembles “Night Moves” from 1939 is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” by (it says here) Ted Weems and his orchestra with Perry Como.

And in 1939, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” was itself a 30-year-old song, a nostalgia fest in its own right:

I wonder who’s kissing her now

I wonder who’s showing her how

I wonder who’s looking into her eyes

Breathing sighs, telling lies;

I wonder who’s buying the wine,

For lips that I used to call mine.

I wonder if she ever tells him of me,

I wonder who’s kissing her now.