Sugarland was never a country band by any traditional measuring stick, but let”s get this out of the way from the start: “The Incredible Machine” is the least country album likely to come out this year under the “country” moniker. Unless Lady Gaga decides to spring a country album on us in the next few weeks (BTW, we don”t consider Taylor Swift a country act anymore).
The immensely popular Sugarland knows and respects the fact that music fans today–and especially younger ones— listen to songs they like. They don”t care what arbitrary genre some radio programmer has slotted them into. However, by Sugarland”s flinging its net so wide, there are times that “The Incredible Machine” sounds like, as Jennifer Nettles sings in “Little Miss,” “one big mess.”
From the opening notes of “All We Are,” with Nettles” dramatic, slowly delivered vocals accompanied by organ and building guitars, “The Incredible Machine” screams “LISTEN TO ME.” The duo”s fourth studio album doesn”t so much embrace the listener (more about that later) as grab him by the throat and not let go in an effort to spread its primary message that help is on the way….and you’ll be able to fist pump your way to recovery.
Anthems dominate “The Incredible Machine.” Even slower songs like “Tonight,” which features Nettles in a thickly nuanced vocal performance unlike you”ve heard her before, feature big echo-y kick drums. Sugarland co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore–best known for his work with Tim McGraw– but the team definitely took its inspiration from Steve Lillywhite”s drum-heavy production with U2.
Speaking of U2, anyone who has seen Sugarland on “The Incredible Machine” tour knows the pair is aiming for the Irish rockers’ grandiose impact and power with its live show. Forget the big feel of arena rock; Sugarland is going straight for the majesty of stadium rock. Every song is meant to reach the rafters. In concert, on “Stand Up,” Nettles brings out a white flag, spray paints a message about love on it, and carries it throughout the venue. And, depending upon whether you find such antics inspiring or preachy, it works. “Stand Up” is the moral centerpiece of “The Incredible Machine”–both the album and the tour. The song feels important in a slightly self-conscious way, but its message of rising up for good is one that will hopefully reach some ears.
“There”s a comfort/there”s a healing high above the pain and sorrow. Change is coming/can you feel it/ calling us into a new tomorrow,” Kristian Bush sings in his raspy tenor in a brief interlude on “Stand Up.” Although the song was recorded before the recent spate of gay teens committing suicide (or at least the media shining a light on the issue), it serves as the perfect anthem for any kid struggling, especially with its “Won”t you stand up, you girls and boys” refrain. It is one of those songs that arrived at the right time and will, hopefully, find a higher purpose.
To Sugarland”s credit, it never pulls a punch on “The Incredible Machine.” Nettles and Bush are fearlessly confident in their ambition. With very few exceptions, the pair reaches for the hammer every time, even if a much lighter touch might serve them better. Additionally, Nettles has one of those remarkable voices that loses none of its potency the more she belts. Vocal issues have plagued her in the past on tour, but there”s nothing here to suggest that she isn”t back to full throttle.
First single, the spiky “Stuck Like Glue” has found an audience at country radio despite the rap/dub Nettles delivers in the middle. She raps again on “Every Girl Like Me.” (something about a “hootie hanging down?”). The maneuver feels novelty on “Stuck Like Glue” and it does here as well. She”s having fun and that”s infectious for the first few listens, but on repeated plays, you may find yourself skipping both songs.
After two forgettable tracks, “Find the Beat Again” and “Wide Open,” the album closes with another stunner, the elegant “Shine the Light.” Accompanied primarily only by piano, Nettles delivers a benediction of sorts to a friend in need that she will stick close through troubled times. It”s a lovely finale, but it”s a shame that it takes until the ending tune to stop the bombast.