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 borne in the moment. When the first single, "Want To," busts into the mix, all bets are off. As a Dobro, a mandolin, and those shimmering guitars offer Nettles a shelf, she walks out on the ledge, a step at a time. The Dobro signifies the distance she's willing to go. By the time the drums and electrics rock themselves into the middle, she's going for it: "The whole world could change in a minute/Just one kiss could stop it spinning/We could think it through/But I don't want to, if you don't want to...." This is the sound of desire, ready to be thwarted again if necessary, but dancing out on the wire of chance. From the first song to the third, where the words "no more" really mean a "yes" to what one expects from life, and then this one, where "yes" is really the only answer to living, Sugarland firmly place themselves in the context of the new 21st century country to be sure, but even more in the context of rock & roll's grand tradition of breaking out of the rut and inviting others to do the same thing.
It's always tempting to look at country records as collections of songs, with rare exceptions. Enjoy the Ride, like its predecessor, Twice the Speed of Life, is past the notion of "songs" as single entities. In fact, Enjoy the Ride is more cohesive, if anything, than the debut. The looped beats, synths, and organ lines at the beginning of "Everyday America" offer a slippery urban groove to the country mix. There's rhythm here that any soul singer could get behind, and the voices of Nettles and Bush entwine to take in the whole of what the words of that title mean -- no matter how small the microcosmic glance at the scenery is. With those Steve Cropper-esque guitar fills, groove becomes the purveyor of poetry and listeners get the country connection to Stax/Volt. Get to the midtempo ballad of "These Are the Days," where the boy/girl duo can take on the world in the same way Doc Pomus and Dion DiMucci posed their protagonists against the night skyline of the Bronx; in every piano line playing that repetitive riff over and over again -- joined by tambourines and drums, mandolins and guitars, or doo wop voices -- it's the same portrait, the same situation. They become every stretched-to-the-point-of fraying lover's story from pop music antiquity -- and that's as it should be, because indeed in every story lies a moment when "These Are the Days."
While the summation of the album is in the track "Sugarland," where it ends properly, "One Blue Sky" is the place where that ending is defined: where disappearance, disappointment, and tragedy -- in this case flood and natural disaster -- create the notion of true American defiance. As the big popping tom-toms offer those electric six-strings something to really fly from, the voices of Nettles and Bush intersect with those left wanting and angry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, those whose dreams disappeared in the fires of the West carried by the Santa Ana winds, and those across America whose small towns are what they have and so they dig in. Certainly Mellencamp, Seger, and Springsteen could have written or sung this one, but so could Melissa Etheridge and Patty Griffin, or any great soul and/or blues singer from Arthur Alexander to Muddy Waters to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
What it all boils down to is that Sugarland, with or without the wonderfully gifted Kristen Hall, not only deliver on the promise of their debut, but further expand it. There is more country on Enjoy the Ride, but more rock & roll, too -- check out the big blasting bass throb and smoking riff in "Mean Girls" (which could have been covered by a younger Chrissie Hynde). One can't forget that Jennifer Nettles came from blues, soul, R&B, and rock, and can sing anything she damn well pleases. When that attack blends into Kristian Bush's more rural and pastoral roots-oriented aesthetic, the result is magical. Traditions are damned so much as bridged. If Luke Lewis and his fine crew over at Mercury can wrap their heads around that, there should be no trouble in breaking this to mainstream rock & roll audiences as well. Enjoy the Ride may be the last great record of 2006, and ensures that Sugarland are no one-trick pony. They are a band whose promise is being revealed more with every offering and whose sense of song, drama, literate street sense, and integrity is straight-up, tough, and at times even wondrous.