That Girl is Jennifer Nettles' first solo record since she co-founded pop-country's superstar act Sugarland. Produced by Rick Rubin, it's mostly a collection of originals, co-written with some of the music industry's most successful songwriters. For his part, Rubin has chosen a familiar stable of sidemen -- Matt Sweeney, Smokey Hormel, Jason Lader, ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer Chad Smith, Alex Acuña, and Lenny Castro -- but his work here is busier than is the norm. Winds, strings, and horns also make appearances. The first single and title track, with its faux Latin groove -- complete with handclaps and congas -- is a left-field pop song kissed by McLagan's B-3 floating about the guitars and bassline until it becomes the driving engine of the tune under her voice. Opener "Falling," initiated by a pair of acoustic guitars, is completely self-written and feels closest to what Nettles has done with Sugarland. It whips itself up into a dynamic anthem with a weave of country and gospel underscoring the song's drama. "Without You" and "This Angel" are essentially acoustic ballads that get painted with strings about midway through. "Moneyball" and "Good Time to Cry" use Southern soul as their jump-off points. That said, they are so self-consciously retro, they feel somewhat restrained by the genre formula. "Jealousy," co-written with Kevin Griffin, is a shiny, breezy, summery pop song kissed by Brazilian rhythms and fluid acoustic guitars. It's also in the R&B camp, but it's modern and more natural in its well-polished yet effective presentation. "This One's for You," a sultry love song co-written with Sara Bareilles, contains a simple melody but showcases a dynamite chart displaying an intricate interplay between piano, electric guitar, and horns as they frame the obvious emotion Nettles puts into the song. These two cuts are the album's finest moments. "Now You Wanna Know," co-written with Richard Marx, is a straight-up barroom rocker with a chanted male backing chorus and driven by McLagan's Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano. The lone cover is Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" that closes the record and features the Dap Kings' horns. It begins as a stately acoustic ballad, but quickly becomes a crossroads where old-school Southern soul and gospel intersect. It's looser, rawer, inspired, committed: it works. She should use it as an inspiration for her next solo offering. No one doubts the power in Nettles' throaty contralto, but some of these songs feel too calculated or require more subtlety to completely pull off. That said, these simple shortcomings won't -- nor should they -- deter her fans. That Girl was obviously designed to showcase her diversity as a vocalist and songwriter, and to cross over to a pop audience (but don't expect country radio to ignore it) -- more than likely, it will.
That Girl Review
by Thom Jurek