CD Review of Love on the Inside by Sugarland
Recommended if you like
Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Dixie Chicks
Label
Mercury Nashville
Sugarland: Love on the Inside

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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W
hen Bon Jovi scored a country hit with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” featuring vocals from Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, there was a whole lot of head-shaking among music fans who found it hard to stomach Jon Bon’s cynical gall – and the fact that he totally pulled it off. But what most listeners didn’t realize was that Bon Jovi’s guests on the tune were just as guilty of exploiting the country market; Kristian Bush, the guitar-playing, mostly silent half of Sugarland, was once one-half of the mid-‘90s acoustic rock duo Billy Pilgrim, and only turned to the CMT crowd after finding himself in his 30s and running low on career options.

The moral of the story, as anyone who’s listened to either of Sugarland’s first two albums can tell you, is that sometimes cynicism works. Bush has always been a fine songwriter and gifted guitarist, but as a rocker, he couldn’t get arrested; if he had to wear a cowboy hat to find success – and Sugarland, with a pair of double platinum records to its name, is nothing if not successful – then it seems like a relatively small concession, especially when the results are as much fun as Love on the Inside.

In their advance press junkets for Inside, Bush and Nettles have described the album as their way of using the space they’ve earned to express themselves after knocking out a series of big hits, and that’s apt – while neither 2004’s Twice the Speed of Life nor 2006’s Enjoy the Ride were exactly what you’d call “typical” country, Love on the Inside cracks the genre open wide, stuffing Nettles’ giant voice into a grab bag full of musical tricks, running the spectrum from old-fashioned mandolins all the way to big, sunny arena rock guitars and choruses. On paper, it looks a little like Shania Twain’s hit records, and some of these tracks do bear a passing similarity to Twain’s expansive, smoothed-out aesthetic – but Nettles’ vocals, and the music behind them, are missing the eerily bionic quality of Come on Over and Up!

Sugarland

That’s a very good thing, by the way. While there’s no denying that Love on the Inside is an album that covers all of its demographic bases and then some – and there’s also no denying that its broad appeal was almost certainly the result of some very deliberate effort – the album does such a good job of blending old-fashioned songcraft with honest charm that it’s nearly impossible to dwell on its deficiencies. The straight-up commercial country songs, like leadoff single “All I Want to Do” and the clever “Steve Earle,” all sound like hits waiting to happen, and Bush and Nettles even manage to push the envelope a time or two, most notably on “Love,” a slow-building anthem that finds Bush unleashing his inner Edge.

Is it country? Is it rock? Is it a piece of product, delivered as tenderly as a love letter to radio programmers? The answer, of course, is all of the above – and it’s also an album that begs you to play it at top volume and sing along with it. You’ll have to dig pretty deep to put together a compelling list of reasons to refuse.

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