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Album review: Sugarland, "The Incredible Machine"

sugarlandSugarland goes big on every song, which isn't always the best choice. (Susan Biddle/TWP)

By Allison Stewart

Before anyone actually heard it, talk was that Sugarland's new album, "The Incredible Machine," was a steampunk concept album -- steampunk being a subgenre that exists at the aesthetic intersection of sci-fi and Victoriana. It's a terrible idea for a concept album by a country band -- or by anyone -- and that it even seemed possible attested to the restless and outsize musical ambitions of Sugarland: Seldom has any country band in history been less interested in acting like a country band.

That artistic tension has led to a series of increasingly adventurous country-pop outings culminating in "The Incredible Machine" (not a steampunk album after all, though steampunk-appropriate themes are woven throughout). "Machine" opens up a new front in Sugarland's war on Nashville complacency, exploding the boundaries between country, pop and arena rock in new and ultimately unpleasant ways.

The problem lies not in Sugarland's lyrics (alternately spunky and thoughtful), or in frontwoman Jennifer Nettles (adorable, despite her penchant for over-singing), but in their influences: Blondie, Bon Jovi, Katrina and the Waves, Carrie Underwood and U2. Most every track is anthemic, and grand, even when smaller might serve it better.

The opening track, "All We Are," aims for Shania Twain and winds up somewhere south of Styx; "Tonight" cribs from "Missing You"-era John Waite. "Stuck Like Glue" is a cheerier play on Underwood's similarly hiccupy "Undo It," if that song had had a reggae-accented rap in the middle. Only the CMT-friendly "Stuck Like Glue" gets to the Sugarland you might remember, even if they don't always want you to.

Recommended tracks: "Stuck Like Glue," "Little Miss"

By Allison Stewart  | October 19, 2010; 10:35 AM ET
Categories:  Quick spins  | Tags:  Sugarland  
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True music fans are people who will listen to and ultimately embrace the differences they both see and hear in every artist. We're in an era where you can't put a label on good music -- country, pop, rock, soul, etc.

I never thought I'd see the day where an artist like Tim McGraw collaborated with an artist like Nelly, but "Over and Over" was a good song. What industry critics need to accept is that artists are crossing over into new genres and formats because they can only build their fanbase and expose new listeners to their music. It's that kind of thinking that will keep the industry afloat.

Let's face it, record sales are down. Cash flow is far from flowing and these artists are trying to stay relevant at a time when you hear Taylor Swift's "Mine" being played on pop stations and burning up the Top 40.

Why are we all so interested in defining an artist to be "country" or "pop" anyway? If the music is good, does it really matter?

Personally, I think "The Incredible Machine" is a statement that says Sugarland was going to go big or go home. And I'd rather they stick around the industry for a long time than continue pumpking out music in a stagnant Nashville scene where just about everything else sounds the same.

Posted by: ssigafoos | October 19, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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