Sugarland stakes its ground as country music's most creatively ambitious million-selling act by opening its album, "The Incredible Machine," with a U2-like overture leading into the first song, "All We Are," which manages to be both catchy and progressive. Then, when guitarist Kristian Bush mimics U2 guitarist The Edge's hypnotic guitar riffs on the title cut, both the band's influences and grand aspirations are laid bare.

As with fellow Georgians R.E.M., whom singer Jennifer Nettles and partner Bush often cover live, Sugarland aims for a middle ground between high-brow explorations and low-brow mass appeal. Even the most blatantly commercial cuts, such as the first hit "Stuck Like Glue," includes a reggae breakdown and a percussive rhythm no other country stars would dare.

At heart, Nettles and Bush remain a stirring commercial pop-country act; the emotional ballad "Tonight" and the anthemic "Stand Up" rank with the best Music Row has to offer. But they continue to challenge themselves and their audiences with songs such as the new wave-influenced "Find The Beat Again" and the far-reaching "Shine The Light."

Those who think country acts must stay down-home in sound and theme won't relate with "The Incredible Machine." But those open to new sounds and ideas will be exhilarated by Sugarland's one-of-a-kind blend of joyful melodies and heady musical arrangements.

Michael McCall, For The Associated Press

'The

Incredible Machine'

Sugarland

(Mercury)