Nobody makes country music like Little Big Town. And for a band that's been at it since 1998, that's a remarkable feat. On their new album The Breaker, the foursome doubles down on their signature sound.
When Little Big Town teamed up with producer Jay Joyce back on 2012's Tornado, the dynamic team dipped their toes in the murky waters of alternative country. Now, with 2017's The Breaker, the foursome and Joyce are practically bathing in them.
To call Little Big Town's eighth album "highly anticipated" is an understatement. When they released Pain Killer in 2014, the group smashed the preconceived notions of what they could accomplish. Yes, the harmonies still took center stage.
But they chose dangerous songs. They blew out your speakers. They made weird, funky noises. And then they went on a sweet instrumental trips before rounding it back to pure country. Not to mention the radio revolution that was "Girl Crush."
And then they had some weird fun on Wanderlust, a funky eight-song EP collaboration with producer wunderkind Pharrell Williams. The work was more or less a surprise, and more or less flew under the radar. But nonetheless, it was an important step in proving just how much this band doesn't care about breaking the genre convention rules, usually in an infectious way.
That sets the stage for The Breaker, officially the band's first album as country music royalty.
Off with the Training Wheels
Up until this point, Little Big Town still clung to a bit of country radio safeguards. Even Pain Killer, with all its cool textures, presented songs like "Day Drinking" — surefire, feeling-free radio fodder. But on The Breaker, Little Big Town lets down the guards.
For starters, lead single "Better Man" comes straight from the pen of Taylor Swift. As much as Nashville still operates on a first-name basis with the megastar, there's a bit of bitterness in town. Some of it relates to her transition to pop, but most of it is self-hate for not realizing country music could've still hung onto her and she'd fit in fine.
But Little Big Town clearly love Swift, and since she sent them the song in the first place, she obviously loves them back. The song, which is in no way a typical modern country radio release, shot to the top of the Country Airplay charts in record time for the band, where it still sits.
But if you listen through the rest of the record to find the "obvious" follow-up single, you'd have a tough time.
A Soft Place to Land
Much of the album circulates between wistful and forlorn. Songs like "Lost In California," which may be one of the strongest tracks on the record, almost hit five minutes in their breezy, backbeat-driven longing for love.
Then you've got songs like "Free," the band's stab at the old saying that all the good things in life are free. Drowning in guitar delay and reverb, Karen Fairchild keeps the song afloat just long enough for the four-part harmonies to lift you up in goosebump-giving fashion.
On the one hand, these songs feel right in the wheelhouse for Little Big Town. But on the other, we've never really heard them do something quite like it.
The only track that really feels like an obvious stab at recent country tropes is "We Went To The Beach." It's not that it's a bad song, it just feels like one of the only songs on the record where we might have already heard all those lines in a different country song.
Not Your Grandpa's Country
That's not to say all of the songs float around in the ether. "Night On Our Side" picks up the pace considerably and feels like something that may have been ripped right from a Ryan Adams record (in a good way). "Drivin' Around" may be the closest we'll get to hearing a B-52s song from a country act. And "Rollin'" very well may be a lost Steve Miller Band tune.
But if you'll notice, none of that comes from a traditional country sound. And you're not going to find anything traditional on The Breaker. But that's one of the things that makes it so enjoyable.
Most of the frustrations with modern country stem from trite lyrics that make us feel dumb and shiny production that feels like two wax coats too many. Very little about this record feels trite or too shiny.
Lyrically, Little Big Town have left behind the sure-fire country cliches of 2012 almost certainly for good. You still get songs about salvation — "Beat Up Bible" is an absolutely gorgeous performance by Kimberly Schlapman and one of the most "country" songs the foursome have done in a while.
You still get songs about heartbreak — "When Someone Stops Loving You" will rip your heart out in all the right ways. But none of it feels obvious, and in the modern world of country music, that's the golden ticket. Feeling familiar without feeling obvious.
Ultimately, The Breaker should rack up a hefty batch of hardware come award season. Under the vast umbrella that is country music, Little Big Town occupy a space all to their own. And it may not feel like a traditional country offering, but they've forged ahead with an exciting sound and interesting songs that tell good stories. It don't get much more country than that.
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