My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Kristian Bush

Single Review: Sugarland – ‘Still The Same’

Sugarland has reunited in an effort to reverse Jennifer Nettles’ commercial fortunes after her most recent solo album failed to produce any big hits. This is her last-ditched effort to remain a major piece of the mainstream conversation. The optimist in me was cautiously excited that this reunion would mean their return to quality music (and a reunion with their strongest writing partner Bobby Pinson) that would finally wash us clean of the bad taste The Incredible Machine left in our mouths.

The bad taste is as strong as ever. “Still The Same” is repetitive, dirty and completely devoid of personality. The production continues down their well-traveled road of borrowing heavily from the arena rock playbook (complete with muddled noise and computer-generated drum loops) written by U2. They make a half-hearted attempt at another “Stuck Like Glue” style “breakdown” and reduce the bridge to a bunch of oohs.

If anything this song does achieve its objective. They are “Still The Same.” Not much has changed in the seven years since The Incredible Machine. That might be comforting to some fans, but it isn’t to me. Now, I’m not going to write off the artistic credibility of their comeback on one song. It’s a right these days that artists will often release the worst song off their album as the lead single. I still have hope that an “Already Gone” or a “Stay” lurks around the corner. It isn’t high hope, but I still have it.

Grade: C-  

Classic Rewind – Sugarland – ‘Fall Into Me’

Possibly my favorite Sugarland song. “Fall Into Me” appeared as the first bonus cut on the ‘Deluxe Fan Edition’ from their magnificent Love On The Inside album from 2008. Co-written by Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Scooter Carusoe, it should’ve made the album proper and would’ve been huge had it been released as a single.

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Sugarland’s Christmas album was released in full last year, with five of the tracks repeated from an EP sold exclusively at Wal-Mart with purchases of the band’s Enjoy The Ride in 2007. The material is evenly divided between Sugarland originals and more familiar fare, and a mixture of secular and religious aspects of Christmas, often within the same songs. Jennifer is in excellent voice throughout, with Kristian Bush given a higher profile than usual, and the production (by Byron Gallimore and the band) is Sugarland at their most restrained and mellow, with most tracks acoustic. Every inclusion here feels carefully chosen and executed; this is no casual Christmas cash-in but a fine album in its own right.

‘City Of Silver Dreams’ opens the album with a gentle, dreamlike ode to New York at Christmas time rather reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter, written by the duo with Lisa Carver and folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. ‘Little Wood Guitar’ was written by Kristian with Ellis Paul, and is a musician’s look at her life through the lens of three atmospherically conveyed Christmas Days: a childhood gift of the eponymous guitar which sets her on her path in life, struggling young adulthood, and finally with a family of her own.

‘Coming Home’ is a jazz-blues number with a gospel choir chorus which is extremely well done, but not my personal cup of tea. The soothing title track has a subtle string arrangement (and quote from ‘The First Noel’ alongside its comforting vision of a contemporary Christmas scene), and Kristian gets a few lines to sing alongside Jennifer’s lovely lead vocal.

He also gets two actual lead vocals on this side project. He is unimpressive on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, with Jennifer offering a counterpart of snippets from ‘Winter Wonderland’ (sounding more invested than she does on the official cut of that song); this is the least effective track on the album, although the bells make it sound cheerily festive. ‘Maybe Baby (New Year’s Day)’ is much better, a very enjoyable bluesy country-rock ballad written by the duo with Troy Bieser, about a man returning home for the Christmas season and reflecting on the possibility of seeing his ex-lover. Kristian doesn’t have the best of voices, but at least on this track it has a gravelly soulfulness which works well.

Of the traditional material, Jennifer delivers serious versions of the carols ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and the beautiful ‘Silent Night’, which she sings partly in Spanish. Both have tasteful acoustic arrangements, the former (one of my favourite tracks)with twin banjos, the latter featuring Kristian’s mandolin. A rather pedestrian vocal take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is redeemed by the playing in the instrumental break with its nod to ‘Deck The Halls’.

The playful ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (one I hadn’t heard before) has Jennifer playing the part of a naughty little girl (and not sounding too bothered at getting no presents as she recites the litany of her misdeeds), and the playing is great.

I have a limited tolerance for Christmas albums, so many of which tend to sound the same and repeat the same songs, but this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. It might even be my favorite Sugarland album.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Love On The Inside’

The multiplatinum success of their first two albums allowed Sugarland to flex their musical muscles and expand their boundaries a bit on their third disc. Jennifer and Kristian wrote or co-wrote every song on the set, collaborating with a country songwriting legend for the album’s final single and Bobby Pinson on a handful of tracks. The bright, infectious sound that had come to define the act can be heard here, but Love On The Inside also includes several welcome departures from the tried and true formula, where same-sounding filler had been on the first two albums. Like its predecessors, Love On The Inside would earn a multiplatinum certification, after becoming their first #1 album on both the Billboard Country Albums and all-genre Billboard 200 charts. The first 3 singles released would also shoot to the top of the singles chart, while a fourth hit the top 20.

First up at radio was the epidemically catchy ‘All I Want To Do’. The female narrator in the song is fully content with her current career-self and is all about focusing on loving the man in her life. A beaty, island-inspired production frame what is mostly a song centered around the ‘ooh oohs’ and otherwise catchy chorus. Lyrically sparse, the song sailed to #1 on the charts, and was certified as a platinum single, and became the pair’s biggest top 40 hit to date, resting at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. (‘Stuck Like Glue’ went to #17 this year, eclipsing that feat.) In the same sound format is ‘It Happens’, the album’s third single, though it does offer a bit more charm with its storyline about a lady have a super bad day.

‘Already Gone’ was the album’s third consecutive chart-topper and is a frank look at the ups and downs in one girl’s life. The three-act plot follows her from a teen branching out on her own with her mother’s advice still in the air, through her plunging headlong into her first heartache and to the eventual end of her marriage. Nettles emotive delivery packs a powerful punch that may take you by surprise given the almost-bright production.

Country legend, and perennial hit-maker, Bill Anderson co-penned ‘Joey’, the somewhat abstract tale of a young man killed in a drunk-driving accident. The verses attempt to tell the story, but so many essential details are omitted, it’s hard to follow, and the track seriously falters with the repetitive chorus. The brooding narrative found an audience, and became the fourth hit from the disc, resting at #17 on the singles chart.

‘Very Last Country Song’ closes up the standard edition of Love On The Inside as the decided highlight. A simple plucking acoustic guitar leads off as Nettles begins recounting the life story of a lady celebrating her birthday by pouring over photos in her kitchen. Through the snapshots, she remembers various family members and tells of the place they all still hold in her heart. It’s the chorus these vignettes center around, however, which simply says that if there were no reason for heartbreak, there’d be no more country music.

Nothing on Love On The Inside sounds tacked on, as every track seems to play an integral part in the overall scheme here. From the amped up blue collar anthem ‘Take Me As I Am’ to the cheeky ‘Steve Earle’, which finds the narrator longing to become a member of the singer’s own ex-wives club to the harmony-laden ‘Genevieve’ with its acoustic guitars turned way up, Love On The Inside finds the duo trying on an array of musical styles and personalities, and each fits like a glove this time around.

This album marked the arrival of Sugarland as bonafide country music superstars. It also showcased the best modern Nashville has to offer with its abundance of hooky melodies, memorable lyrics, and dazzling contemporary country music production. As a result, it stands as the showpiece of the Sugarland catalog, and my personal favorite album.

Grade: A+

Buy Love On The Inside from amazon.

A deluxe edition features 5 more songs. Highlights from those include the legant ‘Fall Into Me’, a slight retread of the love-is-the-salvation-at end of a long day theme of past Sugarland hits – ‘Just Might Make Me Believe’ chief among them.  Also noteworthy among the bonus tracks is a live cover of Matt Nathanson’s ‘Come On Het Higher’ and another cover, this time from 80s pop group The Dream Academy.  ‘Life In A Northern Town’ features Little Big Town and Jake Owen – Sugarland’s 2007 tourmates – in a nifty blend of voices on the very vague and muddy lyric.  This track, recorded at Comcast Theater in Hartford, CT, peaked at #28 in Summer 2008 to become another top 40 hit for all artists involved.

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Enjoy The Ride’

2006 saw a retooled Sugarland, now sans Kristen Hall, teaming up with a new producer, Byron Gallimore, for their sophomore release. Enjoy The Ride finds the now-duo, who share production credits, delving a little further into pop territory. Hall’s departure had seemingly no effect on the group’s popularity; the lead single “Want To”, written by Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush with Bobby Pinson, became Sugarland’s first #1 hit. The acoustic guitar-led track, which also features Dan Dugmore on dobro, is one of the more country-sounding songs on the album, and my personal favorite of the tracks that were released as singles. In addition to spending two weeks at the top of the charts, “Want To” became Sugarland’s fourth single to earn gold certification. The second single, the uptempo “Settlin'” likewise climbed to #1.

After “Settlin'” reached the top of the charts, another uptempo number was sent to radio. “Everyday America” is a story of about growing up in a small town, dreaming of moving on to bigger and better things, but ultimately deciding to stay put. In a sense it is a sequel to “Settlin'”, one in which a slightly older and presumably wiser protagonist has reconsidered her plans to change the world, opting instead to raise a family and enjoy a quiet life. Unfortunately, the track is too loud and overproduced, which detracts from the lyrics’ message. “Everyday America” was the worst-performing single from the album, though it still managed to crack the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The loudness and overproduction problems unfortunately are not unique to “Everyday America”; they plague a few of the album’s tracks, namely “County Line”, the annoying “Mean Girls”, and to a lesser degree, “Settlin'”. The tracks that work well are the quieter ones, most notably the sparsely produced ballad “Stay.” The album’s fourth single, which was written by Jennifer Nettles, features an acoustic guitar played by Kristian Bush, an organ, and Nettles’ powerhouse voice. Considered by many to be Sugarland’s finest moment on record, “Stay” — which Nettles says was inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s In New England” — won two Grammys in 2006: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and “Best Country Song. It also won Single of the Year and Song of the Year from the ACM and Song of the Year from the CMA. It just missed becoming Sugarland’s third #1 hit; peaking at #2, but it became their first platinum single. Unfortunately, it remains their last truly great single to date.

“These Are The Days” is a decent but not great song, notable primarily because Kristian Bush shares lead vocals with Nettles. Unfortunately his grating voice ruins the track. Much better is “Sugarland”, which seems as though it should have been included on the group’s first album. Written in 2003 by Kristian Bush with Vanessa Olivarez and former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, it likely predates Nettles’ hiring as lead singer. It is thematically similar to “Everyday America” but it makes it point much more effectively, and allows the album to close on an introspective high note.

Overall, I enjoyed the ride, but not as much as the first Sugarland album, primarily because of some of the production choices on a handful of tracks. Like its predecessor, it was certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Grade: B

Enjoy The Ride is widely available, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Sugarland – ”Twice The Speed Of Life’

Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.

The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.

Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:

I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more

The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.

The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.

The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:

It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life

The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:

I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up

The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Sugarland

From the Atlanta underground scene, Sugarland was first brought to life by former member Kristen Hall.  In 2002, Hall contacted Kristian Bush about the possibility of creating a band together.  Hall had herself released a half-dozen assorted solo projects and Bush had found some success with the duo Billy Pilgrim, but both were now eyeing the country music umbrella as a release for their music.  When the two decided they needed a powerful female lead voice for the songs they were writing together, they immediately thought of a spunky blonde also making waves on the Atlanta club scene with her own band.  Jennifer Nettles had herself been busy fronting Soul Miner’s Daughter, a folk-rock, garage-band type outfit, and later The Jennifer Nettles Band before releasing 2 solo albums.  Nettle agreed to jump on board and the Sugarland trio was born.

Within a few short years, the band had a deal with Mercury Records’ Nashville office.  Their first single, a frank look at the ups and downs of a fledgling musician, shot to #2 on the country charts, and the pair were on their way.  Two more singles from that album reached the country top 10 and a fourth landed inside the top 20, while the album went on to sell more than 3 million copies.  During the chart run of the album’s third single, Kristen Hall abruptly announced her departure from the group, citing the desire to concentrate on songwriting as her primary reason for quitting.  Three years later, Hall would file a lawsuit claiming she was owed a percentage of all the group’s future royalties.  The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount earlier this year.

Now a duo sans Hall, the group’s second album, Enjoy The Ride, hit shelves in November 2006, propelled by the lead single, the smoking hot ‘Settlin’.  Both ‘Settlin’ and ‘Want To’ hit the top of the country singles chart, but the album’s fourth top 10 hit would prove to be Sugarland’s signature so far.  Jennifer Nettles plaintive delivery of the plight of the other woman with little more than her aching voice and an acoustic guitar instantly connected with a wide-range of audiences, and in addition to its #2 spot on the country chart, the song hit the top 40 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Pop chart.  It would also be the duo’s first platinum-selling single.

2008’s Love On The Inside continued their run of country success with 3 consecutive #1 singles, a double platinum certification, and another round of industry awards.  2007 saw them dethrone long-running champs Brooks & Dunn for the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award, a slot they’ve since repeated in 4 years running.  Love also found the pair stretching their musical muscles as they ably incorporated 80s rock, girl-band pop, and the best of modern Nashville, all to dazzling results.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of their most recent release, the arena rock-influenced The Incredible Machine.  Still, the album’s first single, ‘Stuck Like Glue’, went to #1, and they’ve just released its best track as the follow-up single.

Irresistibly catchy melodies, simple, positive lyrics, and the throaty twang of Jennifer Nettles make up the basis of Sugarland’s distinctive and identifiable sound.  Kristian Bush adds milk and toast harmonies that more often than not, perfectly compliment Nettles lead.  The pair are also responsible for writing or co-writing nearly every song they record.  Their influences run wide, but their general sound found root in country music, and that allowed me to discover their music.  Keep reading this month as we look back over the past 6 years of Sugarland transitioning into the top duo in country music.

Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

It certainly wasn’t intentional, but my top ten albums of 2009 happen to come mostly from the great women recording country music these days. I think I’m drawn to them because there’s a depth to their stories and lyrics, their vocals and arrangements. It seems they’re taking more non-commercial risks than their male counterparts, and are less formula-driven. They’re more interesting and hold my attention for the long haul. These are the albums I’ve been playing over and over this year:

10. #1s…and Then Some – Brooks & Dunn (Sept.) What a ride! This two-disc set is a great romp through the hits of an amazing duo, and ‘Honky Tonk Stomp’ isn’t a bad way to go out.

9. Twang – George Strait (Aug.) Consistently good but stretching himself a bit at the same time (‘El Rey’ for example), George just keeps hitting home runs. ‘Living For the Night,’ ‘Where Have I Been All My Life’ and ‘Beautiful Day For Goodbye’ are highlights for me.

8. Gold and Green – Sugarland (Oct.) Christmas albums can be just another collection of the same old songs overdone again. Leave it to Sugarland to come out with one that’s anything but typical – maybe that’s why the title isn’t the usual Red and Green. I’m still putting this one on my list even though it was released later in the year, if only for ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ with its great dobro, vocals and humor, and their fresh take on ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ accompanied by simple banjo.

7. Live on the Inside — Sugarland (Aug.) Jennifer and Kristian are some of those incredible artists that are even better live! I love their “countrified” instrumentation on the covers! Who would have thought ‘Better Man’ by Pearl Jam would sound great with accordion!

6. The List – Rosanne Cash (Oct.) Not only is this a great covers album, but the story behind it is wonderful, too. Her father, Johnny Cash, gave her his list of the “100 essential country songs” when she was 18 in order to give her a good country music education. Thankfully, she says, she had the good sense to keep the list. Rosanne has one of those great, unpolished folk country voices – not unlike her dad. Love the more acoustic tracks on this one.

5. Dolly – Dolly Parton (Oct.) Perhaps this 4-disc set doesn’t count as a new release, but Dolly is…well…Dolly. Following her career over the years in this time-lapse kind of format is amazing, especially for those of us who weren’t following her as it happened. If you need a new release, though, then sub in her Dolly Live From London that just came out in November. Over 60 and still kickin’, and charmin’ and capturing life in her stories.

4. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sept.) I’m not sure that Revolution quite lives up to its name, but it’s still a great album with Miranda’s barbwire and roses lyrics, edgy arrangements of guitars and plenty of steel, like ‘White Liar’, mixed with some beautiful and thoughtful numbers like ‘The House That Built Me’ and ‘Virginia Bluebell.’ She’s got such a unique sound and her lyrics stand out and grab you – sometimes by the throat, but almost always by the heart.

3. Keep On Loving You – Reba McEntire (Aug.) As much as I love Mountain Soul II for the consistency of its acoustic mountain style, I love Reba’s album for its variety. It’s got classic gritty country story drama in ‘Maggie Creek Road’, as well as contemporary fun in ‘Pink Guitar’, ‘I Want a Cowboy’ and ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’, some solid country fare like ‘Nothing To Lose’ and ‘Consider Me Gone’, and songs that catch your heart in ‘Eight Crazy Hours’ and ‘She’s Turning 50 Today’.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless (Sept.) Wow. From Patty’s clear yet soulful vocals to the simple acoustic production and classic instrumentation to the gems of the songs themselves, this album is a delight from start to finish! Just go get it!

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Sept.) See J.R. Journey’s spot-on review of this one. The word that sums up Terri’s offering for me is “real”. There isn’t a song on the album that doesn’t embody that word. The lyrics and Terri’s interpretation are the highlights. Thankfully, the production and arrangements really allow them to shine. I can tell The Long Way Home will be a long-time fave in my library.