Jennifer Nettles (Mercury Nashville)
As lead singer in the contemporary country duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles and partner Kristian Bush kept growing increasingly experimental over four albums. For her first solo album, “That Girl,” Nettles takes a different tact, stripping her songs to their basics — both sonically and emotionally.
Nettles is blessed with a voice that features a wide range and a distinct, vinegary tone.
But it’s her ability to connect with a song’s emotional content that makes her stand out most. “That Girl” shows off that quality remarkably well, whether she’s singing an open-hearted ballad like “This Angel,” a playful yet meaningful bopper like “Moneyball,” or a complicated confessional like the title cut.
Producer Rick Rubin balances spare acoustic arrangements with inventive rhythms and orchestrations.
Even the most dramatic moments shine because of a deft, light touch, from the Latin rhythms of “Jealousy” to the way horns come in on “This One’s For You” to how drums and strings are introduced in “Me Without You.”
“That Girl” is a 1970s-style creative statement, recalling classic Carole King and Linda Ronstadt rather than any of her country or pop contemporaries. It’s a reminder of how powerful music can be when it comes from the heart — and tilts more toward talent than technology.
— MICHAEL McCALL,
The Autumn Defense (Yep Roc Records)
When not rocking out with Wilco, multi-instrumentalists John Stirratt and Patrick Sansone dish out smooth ’70s-sounding pop as the Autumn Defense. Their latest and fifth release, the appropriately titled “Fifth,” comes four years after their last effort.
The wait was worth it.
The Autumn Defense is all about melodic hooks and harmonies. Fans looking for some of the rougher musical edges that Wilco dives into will be disappointed. The approach is clearly on display with the opening track, “None of This Will Matter,” a song so easy on the ears it feels like a warm auditory hug.
Stirratt and Sansone find a groove and stick with it through all 12 tracks. That consistency can be either monotonous or entrancing, and sometimes both at the same time.
The songs’ lyrics touch on feelings of melancholy, longing, sadness, love, and depression. It’s a broad spectrum, all tied together under the rich musical tapestry created by Stirratt and Sansone.
Watch out, Wilco. The Autumn Defense is on the offensive, albeit in a very mellow way.
— SCOTT BAUER,
James Vincent McMorrow (Vagrant Records)
This much is clear: James Vincent McMorrow's in the right business. The Dublin singer-songwriter has an incredible falsetto voice to go with his writer's heart and bare-it-all passion that's both sentimental and sophisticated. Post Tropical — McMorrow's follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2011 debut, Early in the Morning — has a powerful, engaging aura to it and, at times, a drum machine's thumping beat offset by his vocal gyrations, as in a sleek song called "Red Dust."
But the album's message, as well as many of McMorrow's lyrics, aren't clear. Post Tropical is a risky departure for McMorrow, a project recorded on a pecan farm a half-mile from the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Juarez. It has an intriguing mix of inspiration and despair.
It's a disc that is more electronica than folk and inspired by McMorrow's fascination with hip-hop and atmospheric rhythm & blues.
His opening number, "Cavalier," cries out with a painful refrain of "I remember my first love," followed by other songs of lost love and life's lessons. There's a beauty in McMorrow's voice and the album's texture, even if it's hard to put a finger on the theme and, as he confesses, to define it.
— TOM HENRY