The first time Jennifer Nettles stepped away from Sugarland she teamed with producer Rick Rubin for That Girl, an album that leaned hard on her earthy rock underpinnings. Playing With Fire, her new set delivered two years later, is the flip side of the coin. Produced by Dann Huff – a Nashville veteran with a back-story in AOR rock – Playing With Fire is snappy, shiny country-pop with such a strong R&B undercurrent that comes as no surprise when Jennifer Lopez stops by to duet on the album-closing “My House.” While this melodic inversion of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” is a stumble – underneath their superficial differences, the only thing that unites these two singers is a taste for showbiz corn – its lithe drum loops accentuate how well the rest of Playing With Fire incorporates modern soul.
Much of the record plays with these bright rhythms – “Hey Heartbreak” pushes it into the realm of crossover AAA pop, “Chaser” simmers with these nimble cadences, while “Sugar” swaggers like vintage Shania Twain – and this playfulness winds up as an attractive accent to the album’s professional sturdiness. Jennifer Nettles and Dan Huff have a keen ear for material, providing a showcase for Brandy Clark (the slyly funny “Drunk In Heels”), choosing songs that highlight her knack for understated balladry (“Three Days in Bed,” “Salvation Works”) or skill as a belter (“Playing with Fire”), yet nothing here feels like showboating. There’s a subtlety to how all these moods fit together and that’s what makes Playing With Fire a success: each song plays upon a distinctive mood but, added together, it provides a portrait of a sharp, savvy country diva.