Jennifer Nettles, "That Girl" (Mercury Nashville)
As lead singer in the contemporary country duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles and partner Kristian Bush kept growing increasingly experimental over four albums. For her first solo album, "That Girl," Nettles takes a different tact, stripping her songs to their basics -- both sonically and emotionally.
Nettles is blessed with a voice that features a wide range and a distinct, vinegary tone. But it's her ability to connect with a song's emotional content that makes her stand out most. "That Girl" shows off that quality remarkably well, whether she's singing an openhearted ballad like "This Angel," a playful yet meaningful bopper like "Moneyball" or a complicated confessional like the title cut.
Producer Rick Rubin balances spare acoustic arrangements with inventive rhythms and orchestrations. Even the most dramatic moments shine because of a deft, light touch, from the Latin rhythms of "Jealousy" to the way horns come in on "This One's for You" to how drums and strings are introduced in "Me Without You."
"That Girl" is a 1970s-style creative statement, recalling classic Carole King and Linda Ronstadt rather than any of her country or pop contemporaries. It's a reminder of how powerful music can be when it comes from the heart -- and tilts more toward talent than technology.