Sugarland Love on the Inside (Mercury/UMG)

****

Right now, American life feels like one long Cymbalta commercial. Bad news is piling up so fast that it's become a mind-numbing bore. In stores, signs that say things like "you still deserve the little luxuries" try to jolt shoppers out of the doldrums. A relaxing drive will bankrupt you and destroy the earth in the process, and then there's that persistent rumor that the cellphone you use to talk to your therapist really will give you brain cancer.

Well, nothing cures the blues -- temporarily, but still -- better than uplifting, substantial, unifying, humanizing music. I'm here to tell you, fellow mopers, America needs Sugarland.

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush has been making hits for a while but reaches a new peak with its third album "Love on the Inside." This is adult contemporary music that's enough fun for the kids and true-blue country without any trace of flag-waving or bigotry. The 17 songs on the 71-minute "deluxe fan edition" warm to traditions like bluegrass, Muscle Shoals soul and the talking blues, but at its heart, it's all about the unsnobby eclecticism of crossover pop.

Nettles and Bush, who started as Atlanta folk-rockers in the same scene as the Indigo Girls, come at the clichés of Nashville songwriting the way longtime serial daters come to marriage: with humor, a sense of perspective and the willingness to work. They're not immune to corn -- "Pshhhhh . . . it happens," is the punch line of a song that has Nettles denting her ex's truck in a borrowed Caddy on the way to Wal-Mart -- but their cheese is sharp and their inspirational truisms transcend themselves to ring true.

Sugarland's music is straight from the Garth-and-Shania school of broad-minded country, blending arena rock's big reach with the laid-back poetics of James Taylor. Nettles, who famously duetted with Jon Bon Jovi, shares his talent for turning clichés into conversation; she's got a golden alto with an aching undertone that really serves her sad songs and adds depth to the sillier ones.

Bush provides charmingly gruff background vocals and mandolin and guitar work that keeps Sugarland's sound organic even when it reaches for the cheap seats.

The pair and their top-notch side players (note the presence of ace drummer Matt Chamberlain) never sound too processed, though the sound is streamlined and extremely well-toned.

Romps like the insider joke " Steve Earle" and the hillbilly cred-earner "Genevieve" offer succor to the yuppies in their crowd, but Nettles and Bush serve everyone best by renewing beloved pop traditions, like the all-American lighter lifter in "Already Gone," or the domestic weeper in "Very Last Country Song."

Throughout "Love on the Inside," Sugarland treats pop like a big picture instead of a series of niches, presenting connectedness as a spiritual ideal. Thanks, Sugarland. America needed that.

--Ann Powers

Well-schooled in the taut song

Rick Springfield "Venus in Overdrive" (New Door)

** 1/2

An early-'80s rocker smart enough to use his pop-star looks to score a soap-star sideline, Rick Springfield knows that at this late date in his career there's as much money to be made rehashing his old hits as there is attempting to craft new ones.

So Springfield kicks off "Venus in Overdrive," his first set of original material since 2003, with a barely rewritten version of his trademark hit "Jessie's Girl" in which he asks the question burning at the core of every husband ever assigned to shopping-mall bag-holding duty: "What's Victoria's secret?"

"Venus in Overdrive" rarely strays from Springfield's down-the-middle pop-rock blueprint. But invention was never a tool in Springfield's box; he reflected what listeners felt, rather than showing them how to feel. ("Forever is a long, long time," he sings in the new album's "Oblivious," proving he has no interest in expanding his job description.)

What's surprising about "Venus," then, isn't its nonexistent creative detours, but how taut and tuneful Springfield's writing is in gems like "I'll Miss That Someday," "Time Stand Still" and "One Passenger," all of which move with the muscular efficiency of current radio fare. Rare is the man capable of making Nickelback sound self-indulgent.

Of course, the quality of the material here is little reason to expect that Springfield will connect with kids whose parents danced to "Jessie's Girl" at their proms. So allow me to frame "Venus in Overdrive" a different way: You know Lincoln Hawk, the has-been alt-rock band Dan Humphrey's dad leads on " Gossip Girl"? Here's the album it never made.

--Mikael Wood