By Allison Stewart
Before anyone actually heard it, talk was that Sugarland's new album, "The Incredible Machine," was a steampunk concept album -- steampunk being a subgenre that exists at the aesthetic intersection of sci-fi and Victoriana. It's a terrible idea for a concept album by a country band -- or by anyone -- and that it even seemed possible attested to the restless and outsize musical ambitions of Sugarland: Seldom has any country band in history been less interested in acting like a country band.
That artistic tension has led to a series of increasingly adventurous country-pop outings culminating in "The Incredible Machine" (not a steampunk album after all, though steampunk-appropriate themes are woven throughout). "Machine" opens up a new front in Sugarland's war on Nashville complacency, exploding the boundaries between country, pop and arena rock in new and ultimately unpleasant ways.
The problem lies not in Sugarland's lyrics (alternately spunky and thoughtful), or in frontwoman Jennifer Nettles (adorable, despite her penchant for over-singing), but in their influences: Blondie, Bon Jovi, Katrina and the Waves, Carrie Underwood and U2. Most every track is anthemic, and grand, even when smaller might serve it better.
The opening track, "All We Are," aims for Shania Twain and winds up somewhere south of Styx; "Tonight" cribs from "Missing You"-era John Waite. "Stuck Like Glue" is a cheerier play on Underwood's similarly hiccupy "Undo It," if that song had had a reggae-accented rap in the middle. Only the CMT-friendly "Stuck Like Glue" gets to the Sugarland you might remember, even if they don't always want you to.
Recommended tracks: "Stuck Like Glue," "Little Miss"