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Review: Jennifer Nettles searches for herself on 'That Girl'

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When Jennifer Nettles rhymes “a little kiss of freedom” with “a little room for breathin’” in her song “Me Without You,” context tells us she’s singing about the relief that accompanies the end of a troubled romantic relationship.

On her first solo album, though, the frontwoman of Sugarland might also be describing her escape from a country-music establishment that didn’t always appreciate her quirks. In 2010, for instance, at least a few radio stations took it on themselves to create an unauthorized edit of Sugarland’s song “Stuck Like Glue” that did away with a verse in which Nettles raps in a faux-Jamaican patois.

“Nobody would change Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’” the duo’s manager told Billboard at the time. “Touching their art -- it’s so presumptuous.”

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Yet now that she’s out on her own, Nettles taps into that sense of freedom only intermittently on “That Girl,” which comes nearly four years after Sugarland’s last album and follows a series of digital singles by the duo’s other member, Kristian Bush. Just as often here, Nettles still sounds like a square peg.

The round hole has changed, though. To help make “That Girl,” Nettles turned to Rick Rubin, the amply bearded record producer who’s become something of a spirit guide to musicians in search of artistic truth (or the appearance of it anyway). As usual, Rubin convened his go-to wrecking crew of session players -- including Beck’s guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers -- at his bucolic studio in Malibu, where he’s hosted acts as varied as Metallica and Adele.

And more than anything else, it’s the rootsy retro-soul of the latter’s hugely successful “21” that Nettles seems to be going for in songs such as the horn-laced “Good Time to Cry” and “Falling,” which feels like a blurry carbon copy of Adele’s “Don’t You Remember.” (Nettles wrote or co-wrote all but one of the 11 songs on “That Girl.”)

But if the vocalist brought an impressive soulfulness to some of Sugarland’s best songs -- “Stay,” from 2006, has lost none of its stark beauty -- her full-blast singing sounds sorely out of place in the flimsier material here; it totally overwhelms acoustic ballads such as “This Angel” and “Thank You,” like a fire hose spraying at a matchstick house.

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She’s more comfortable -- and more convincing -- in a handful of rowdier uptempo cuts: “Know You Wanna Know,” about the allure of celebrity gossip; “Moneyball,” with some appealingly earnest thoughts regarding technology’s forward march; and “That Girl,” a clever riff on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” in which Nettles declines to play the home-wrecker.

But the title track isn’t the only tune about coveting another woman’s man -- there’s also “Jealousy,” easily the album’s best song and one that finally provides the breathing room she's evidently seeking. Slackening her voice over a breezy countrypolitan shuffle, Nettles seems completely delighted to be delivering these lines: “I didn’t really mean to cause such an ugly scene / Showing up at your house, half-drunk and crazy / Bitch, I called you out.”

After that, she recalls a party where she poured her whiskey down the back of the woman’s dress. And after that, she proposes a kind of truce: “I won’t tell anyone you bought a new pair / I’ll even tolerate your skanky fake hair / ’Cause we both know you win.” Her loss sounds liberating.

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