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Jennifer Nettles

Playing With Fire – 2016 (Big Machine)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Jennifer Nettles

If you happened to hear Jennifer Nettles' debut solo record, "That Girl," you may have come away thinking that she was a frustrated torch singer. That effort was chock full of emotive ballads, which, while heartfelt, sure was missing a certain element of F-U-N.

Problem solved. From the opening sustain of gospel organ, Nettles storms out of the gate in a sensational tour-de-force. Everything about the record screams fearlessness, whether it's in the sweet abandon of the music or more ideological. The title track gives us a Reba-esque stomper about somebody who just discovered she doesn't really care what everyone thinks. She proceeds to serve notice to the boy that won't call back ("Chaser") or sadness itself ("Hey Heartbreak / give me your key - it's you it's not me"). Even when Nettles dresses somebody down, or moves to feminist anthem territory ("Drunk in Heels"), it stays catchy and sermon-free. Part of the secret sauce is twang. Nettles has one of the most unique voices in music - the louder it gets, the more Southern it sounds. She sings this material full-bore, and the tracks work great testing out your speakers.

Another ingredient is candor. Nobody could come away from this record saying Nettles didn't speak her truth, calling out hypocrites ("Salvation Works") or mining for cultural unity ("My House," an unexpected duet with Jennifer Lopez). Ace songwriter Brandy Clark, who has joined Nettles on the road, signs up as the guardian angel - she had a hand in seven songs. But Nettles wisely looks for good material in more than one place, and is no songwriting slouch herself. Rumor has it Sugarland isn't through. If they are, all's well on this side of the fence. This is the sound of somebody liberated and happy to be making her own choices, right or wrong. If you need a pick-me-up, or just want to try shaking the roof, this is just the ticket.