There is a lot at stake for Sugarland on their sophomore outing, Enjoy the Ride. First, there's the fact that their first release, Twice the Speed of Life, was a multi-platinum success. Its singles and videos drove the record outside country music's audience to appeal to a degree to mainstream rock & roll listeners who didn't mind at all when ...
There is a lot at stake for Sugarland on their sophomore outing, Enjoy the Ride. First, there's the fact that their first release, Twice the Speed of Life, was a multi-platinum success. Its singles and videos drove the record outside country music's audience to appeal to a degree to mainstream rock & roll listeners who didn't mind at all when vocalist/songwriter Jennifer Nettles appeared in a duet with Jon Bon Jovi on a video of Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home." Secondly, there is the "sophomore jinx," which tends to plague many celebrated acts whose debut albums are successful -- especially beyond expectations. Thirdly, Sugarland were formed by songwriters Kristen Hall and Kristian Bush, who heard Nettles and asked her to join the band. Hall wrote or co-wrote everything on the band's debut -- though Bush and Nettles are serious songwriters in their own right (see below). Hall left the band suddenly and somewhat mysteriously at the beginning of 2006, issuing a gentle yet terse statement that the life of the road and high visibility weren't for her and she wished to concentrate on being a songwriter. She wished Bush and Nettles well and graciously thanked them. Her name only appears on one track on Enjoy the Ride, the album's final cut, "Sugarland," and is nowhere mentioned in the voluminous "thank-yous" on the credits page. Hmmm....The real question is whether or not the band delivers on Enjoy the Ride. Bush and Nettles co-wrote most everything on the set, which was produced by the pair with Byron Gallimore. Third parties Lisa Carver (underappreciated but gloriously talented), Tim Owens, Bobby Pinson, and Jeff Cohen joined forces to round out the various tracks here. Nettles wrote the brilliant liberation story "Stay" on her own, and Bush worked with Hall and Vanessa Olivarez on "Sugarland." Musically, Enjoy the Ride is a likely but more chancy part two of the Sugarland story. The songs are tough, lean, direct, and in their way poignant. Gallimore's production hand is brighter and tighter than that of Garth Fundis, who worked on the band's debut. The mix is brighter and a bit more rocked up, and that's a good thing. So it all comes down to the songs themselves, and the way they come across.The keyboard lines that open "Settlin'," along with the big anthemic guitars, B-3, and drums are a shock to the system, but then Nettles drops right into the center of the groove with "Fifteen minutes to get me together/For Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever/Don't even know why I even try when I know how it ends/Lookin' like another 'Maybe we can be friends'/I've been leaving it up to fate/It's my life so it's mine to make/I ain't settlin'/For just getting by/I've had enough so-so/For the rest of my life/Tired of shooting too low/So raise the bar high/Just enough ain't enough this time/I ain't settlin' for anything less than everything...." The guitars careen off one another and Nettles --arguably (along with Gretchen Wilson) the finest singer in country music today -- soars above the fray in her gritty R&B-tinged voice. This is a terrain familiar to rock audiences. John Mellencamp has been laying this down for 30 years and it becomes even more pronounced on "County Line," the next cut. With crunchy six-strings, popping snares and kick drums, and mandolins and fiddles -- with an ornate B-3 to fill in the spaces -- rock & roll meets the folksiness of country music. This is more rock & roll than anything that's come down that pipe in a decade. Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and even Bruce Springsteen could get away with this song. But Nettles is firmly in her own voice here. In the grain of her throaty wail, and in the anthemic refrains she and Bush sing, is the sound of American experience, the sound of life in process. It's not a movie floating by, but the grit and grist of the mill flowing through the marrow of listeners and musicians alike. This is the music of an inclusive experience known to working people, those whose difficulties are...
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