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Album Review

Sugarland aims for the heart

October 18, 2010

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The steampunk-style lettering on the cover of Sugarland’s new album might make you think that “The Incredible Machine’’ is a funky plumbing contraption. But the title refers to the human heart; and the country pop duo’s latest offering has got plenty to spare.

Whether guiding a friend plagued by storm clouds toward the silver lining on the gospel-infused piano ballad “Shine the Light’’ — which offers shades of Annie Lennox and the Beatles — or playfully musing on who the “you’’ is for “Every Girl Like Me,’’ a sassy midtempo ambler, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are on their game.

They’ve expanded the playing field quite a bit on their fourth album, however. While several tracks fit squarely in the country pop arena — including the amiable shuffle “Little Miss’’— Nettles and Bush also indulge their power-pop jones (the insistent “Find the Beat Again’’), explore brooding rock terrain (the Chrissie Hynde-meets-Springsteen murmurer “Tonight’’), and reach for the back row of the balcony with several U2-ish anthems.

The band runs into a bit of trouble with the “big statement’’ numbers as it sacrifices specificity in favor of the general advocacy of self-empowerment. But when the songs sound as good as the acoustic slow burner “Stand Up,’’ broad language is easy to swallow.

Is it “country’’? Given the fluctuating definition of the format over the last 20 years some of it is and some of it isn’t. But the bigger question with any record regardless of genre should always be is it good? And “The Incredible Machine’’ is very good indeed. (Out tomorrow) SARAH RODMAN

ESSENTIAL “Tonight’’