Album: “That Girl” (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 such as “This Angel,” a playful yet meaningful bopper such as “Moneyball” or a complicated confessional such as 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, Associated Press
Album: “The River & The Thread” (Blue Note)
The songs on “The River & The Thread” rock like a cradle, and the rhythm rings true while Rosanne Cash explores her roots.
The mesmerizing musical journey takes her to Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast as Cash encounters the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Emmett Till, a.m. radio and her Civil War ancestors. There’s also the repeated tug of Memphis, where Cash was born around the time her father cut his first record.
This Southern music stretches far beyond the confines of country — those are violins on “Night School,” not fiddles. The 11 songs blend Tennessee flattop twang with gospel, the blues and even hints of jazz while building a bridge from Dust Bowl ballads to Dusty Springfield pop.
Covering so much territory takes time, but Cash makes it well worthwhile. In these days of downloads, “The River” offers an eloquent argument for albums. Her husband and producer, John Leventhal, pulls it all together and ensures the set’s considerable ambitions don’t overwhelm the immaculate arrangements. There’s no hot pickin’ here; instead, Cash’s marvelous material is the star as she shares her story of rediscovery.
—Steven Wine, Associated Press
SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS
Album: “Give the People What They Want” (Daptone)
It’s about the music first and foremost, of course, but it’s also about the context. And the circumstances behind the release of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ fifth studio album make you appreciate all the more the verve and vivacity with which the soul revivalist band put over the rawboned sound.
“Give the People What They Want” was originally scheduled to be released last summer, but it was pushed back after the 57-year-old singer was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer.
After she finishes up her chemotherapy treatments, Jones and her snappy Brooklyn band will return to the road next month, and although they were recorded before she became ill, songs such as the lead single, “Retreat,” (“Retreat! What a fool you are to be taking me on”) and “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” take on added gravitas considering the troubles of the pint-sized powerhouse singer.
Not that “Give The People What They Want” is at all a self-serious difficult pill to swallow. What the people want from Jones & the Dap-Kings are hard-driving, old-school R&B jams in which the spirits of cherished singers such as Otis Redding and Joe Tex are reanimated, and these 10 tunes take care of that business as effectively as ever.
—Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Album: “And I’ll Scratch Yours” (Real World)
Turnabout is fine music. This album is the reciprocal to Peter Gabriel’s 2010 album “Scratch My Back,” on which he covered artists from Paul Simon to Arcade Fire. Now those singers and a couple of new additions return the favor, interpreting Gabriel’s songs.
The results range from dutiful (Regina Spektor on “Blood of Eden”) to transformative (the late Lou Reed on an elegiac “Solsbury Hill”). Highlights include “Come Talk to Me,” which Bon Iver translates as a cascading banjo ballad that sounds almost hymnal, and “Not One of Us,” which Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields twists into a jumped-up robo-song.
“Scratch My Back” is a better album because Gabriel, soon to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, made the songs his own. Here the material is simply being borrowed.
—David Hiltbrand, Philadelphia Inquirer