Album review: Sugarland’s ‘Incredible Machine’

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You don’t need the news release that accompanies the Georgia duo’s fourth album to know that Sugarland might easily have subtitled it, “The Arena Rock Album.”

Even without reading their own words about aspiring to come up with songs that can ignite 10,000 cellphone screens each night on their next tour, it’s obvious from one listen to the many U2, Shania Twain, Coldplay and Bon Jovi parallels that that’s where Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are headed here.


Sugarland has expanded on its core country music audience by crafting increasingly pop-minded tracks, and it struck an attractive balance on 2008’s “Love on the Inside” between the down-home emotional tone of its early songs and a broader spectrum of pop, R&B and country-soul soaked material.

Now, however, subtlety, nuance and, most disappointingly, substance are checked at the stadium gate as the pendulum swings unmistakably toward sing- and sway-along anthems. The single “Stuck Like Glue” bursts with melodic, instrumental and lyrical hooks in a track as frothy as pop gets. Several other tracks show equally skilled production, but the appeal is all on the surface.

Nettles’ powerhouse voice needs no artificial help — evidenced anew on the gospel-minded ballad “Shine the Light” that closes the album — yet she goes the Auto-Tune route on occasion and elsewhere echoes the Beyoncé-Gaga-Katy Perry penchant du jour for monosyllabic glottal stops.

It’s a shame Sugarland couldn’t find room for anything as moving or richly layered as “Stay,” the pair’s 2007 hit that rightly landed them so many industry awards. The new stuff will most assuredly get audiences on their feet; whether it leaves them with anything beyond visceral thrill as they exit the arena is another matter.

— Randy Lewis

“Incredible Machine”
Two ½ stars (Out of four)