Jennifer Nettles, That Girl. It’s her first official release as a solo artist, but hasn’t Jennifer Nettles always been one? I mean, even with Kristian Bush, she’s the energy, charisma and voice of Sugarland. And it’s not the first time: In 1998, before she became one of the biggest names (and voices) in country music, Nettles fronted a self-titled alt-country group. Sugarland might as well be called The Jennifer Nettles Band, too.

JenniferNettles_ThatGirl_300rgb-smThat Girl, then, isn’t a surprising venture, but — even with Rick Rubin’s earthy production, and considering what she’s capable of— it’s also not one that compels or captures like Nettles has with or before Sugarland. She pours her heart all over “Falling,” a drum-kicked soul surger, and “Good Time to Cry” and a stripped cover of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” — both demonstrating the power and spirit that make Nettles a vocal force to be reckoned with — save the best for last. The disc’s core, though, is tepidly fly-by, and besides “That Girl” (an almost wink-wink companion piece to Sugarland’s Grammy-winning “Stay”), it disappoints with melodically bland blues/gospel/rock and Nettle’s middle-of-the-road co-writes.

Nettles will release another solo LP, because she should, and though That Girl — a refreshing-if-unsound break from the Sugarland’s country pop — isn’t the album it could be, it at least shows there’s more up her sleeve. — Chris Azzopardi

Grade: Two and a half stars