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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

CD reviews: Sugarland makes solid country debut with catchy, heartfelt tunes

This talented trio of performer/songwriters bursts onto the contemporary country music scene with some of the sweetest harmonies and catchiest tunes heard in ages. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles leads the way, strutting knockout vocal dexterity throughout the 11 original gems.

She's backed by music industry veterans Kristian Bush and Kristen Hall, who give a sense of depth and add substantial vocal maturity.

Songwriter Hall has two solo albums to her credit on the Windham Hill label. Bush was half of the two-man Billy Pilgrim, which released two albums.

The twang put forth by this Atlanta-area group is substantial, so it's clearly the country bins where Sugarland will be found. However, there's a sense of hard folk in the vocal depth and range of topics, touching on personalities and places with a sense of admiration, longing, and wistful reminiscences.

It's mostly done with a heavy dose of anticipation and excitement, both musically and lyrically, rather than any sloppy sentimentality.

That helps keep it a notch above most new albums and ripe for repeated playings. The title tune should make it well up the charts, along with a handful of others among this solid package, which doesn't have a single weakness. Among special highlights is "Baby Girl," a finely crafted story of growth and the price of success.

- KEN ROSENBAUM

This is a two-CD set, featuring 14 hits, three new songs and a bonus disc of remixes by top dance names, including Armand Van Helden and Junkie XL. It kicks off with a previously unreleased version of the Bobby Brown song, and this CD's title cut, on which Spears states emphatically, "They say I'm crazy, I really don't care." It's overall a bold mission statement of a song, and it opens the disc on a strong note. She follows it with "Toxic," "I'm A Slave 4 U," and "Oops! … I Did It Again." Unfortunately, as the first disc wears on, the songs are less individual and the arrangements overwhelm her. Even the two remaining unreleased cuts sound as if we've heard them before.

- RICHARD PATON

Botti goes well beyond the simple execution of beautiful note-playing to create a musical symmetry with the listener, demonstrating how light jazz doesn't have to be lame jazz. His silky style has many of the intangibles that can't be taught, with renditions of jazz standards so lush they could practically pour the wine one minute and clink ice cubes in a Scotch glass the next. "When I Fall in Love" is a sweet and smooth collection that holds nothing back. It doesn't hurt that Botti is surrounded by brilliant backup musicians, including the London Session Orchestra, and has Paula Cole as a singer.

- TOM HENRY

Warren Zevon's death from cancer last year left a gaping hole in the pantheon of American songwriters. His peers - Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne - loved him and are still singing his praises, literally, on this tribute disc. Unfortunately, it's a spotty effort. Steve Earle, Adam Sandler, Don Henley, and Pete Yorn bludgeon their versions of his songs. Springsteen manages to turn "My Ride's Here" into an elegant ballad, and The Pixies rock "Ain't That Pretty At All" hard. But the best song, fittingly, comes from Zevon's son Jordan on the unreleased gem "Studebaker."

- ROD LOCKWOOD



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