Monday, November 3, 2014

album review: 'pain killer' by little big town

As I mentioned in the past, there was a considerable amount of time in the 2000s when I didn't listen to a lot of country music - sure, I caught what was on the radio and I still appreciated the genre, but for the latter half of that decade, country music was not on my mind - which really is a shame, because there were a fair number of great country acts in that period that made great albums. 

And one of the biggest acts to unfairly fall under my radar was Little Big Town. One of the more unique groups in modern country, they consist of the female singers of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, and the male singers Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet, and made their first big smash in 2006 with their second album The Road To Here. Going back through that album, they remind me a lot of Lady Antebellum in their mid-tempo vibe, but that's where the similarities ended. For one, their harmonies were excellent, and they tended to have a more rollicking edge to their instrumentation, even when it was very acoustic and polished - which, of course brought the comparisons to Fleetwood Mac... and yeah, it's kind of hard to miss. From a melodic standpoint, the similarities get pretty stark, especially on their third album A Place to Land - but on the other hand, speaking as a Fleetwood Mac fan, they were never straight-up copycats and did have some very well-written songs. 

Unfortunately, their early career was fraught with label difficulties, as their label Equity Records went under and Little Big Town was moved over to Capitol Nashville midway through releasing singles from their third album. They pulled things together for The Reason Why in 2010, which injected some sharper texture and energy into their typical midtempo vibe and it paid big dividends. They followed it up in 2012 with Tornado, which I really like thanks to the rough-edged production of long-time Eric Church producer Jay Joyce, but by that point it was hard not to notice the shift in their songwriting and the increased number of writing credits that weren't from the band. Granted, they were working with good songwriters and let's be honest, lyrical flair was never my biggest focus with Little Big Town, but it was a warning sign. And given I wasn't a fan of their lead-off single 'Day Drinkin', or their collaboration with Miranda Lambert 'Smokin' And Drinkin' that showed up on her last album Platinum, I was a little uneasy - yeah, they were working with Jay Joyce again, but they were also six albums into their career and country music as a genre is in a weird transitory place right now - what did it mean for Little Big Town's new album Pain Killer?

Well, just as country music is in a weird transitory place right now, Pain Killer is also weird - but weird in the sense that it's halfway between the cacophonous insanity of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Eric Church's The Outsiders, a country record that comes straight out of left-field and represents a significant departure in sound from the more restrained work of their previous records. In other words, while I don't think this album completely works - I'll get to why, although most listeners will be able to pinpoint it instantly - it's a fascinating listen and an album I honestly wish I liked more than I do. I like it when country gets weird and experimental, and while it is better than Eric Church's attempt to fuse progressive metal with country, I'm still not certain it works.

So for a change of pace, let's start with the least important and interesting element on this album: the lyrics. Let's be blunt here, lyrics have never been the biggest focus of Little Big Town, and to be fair they've been able to get away with it for a while thanks to killer harmonies and solid melody lines - and arguably they get away with it here too. It helps that their lyrics are rarely bad, just a little bland at points revisiting metaphors and imagery that aren't exactly revolutionary. It doesn't help matters that some of the songs feel a little unfinished and could have used a little more lyrics to better sketch a picture. This also means that if this album has a theme, it's loosely defined at best, in this case being a series of troubled relationships. Not exactly a revolutionary theme, but what I did like was the framing, which does a lot to show all the characters in said troubled relationships as deserving the natural states of friction. Indeed, that's probably the closest thing to a real message, that the natural state of love is conflict, be they the back and forth of 'Quit Breaking Up With Me' to the over-the-top drama of 'Faster Gun', to the complicated aching pain of 'Girl Crush' to the thick air of contempt upon the breakup in 'Things You Don't Think About'. And while love might be that pain killer for a time, it's a temporary opiate that has all sorts of side effects, from the unease of 'Tumble & Fall' to the eternal instability of 'Live Forever'.

But let's be blunt, this isn't revolutionary songwriting, especially for country music - but on the other hand, I didn't mind the simpler themes here, even if I did find songs like 'Day Drinkin' to be a little uninspired. It's a necessary foundation for the rest of this album, which very quickly goes into all sorts of weirdness you would never have expected from this band. The other essential piece of the foundation are the harmonies, which are thankfully still quite strong. I will say right out of the gate that while I get the label's desire to push Karen Fairchild as the frontwoman of the group, I've never been the biggest fan of her vocals, and I prefer it when the group is a little more evenly balanced, or at least gives the rest of the group more time in the spotlight. And I feel obliged to say that despite how good the harmonies are, I'm a little baffled why there isn't more interplay between the members of the band playing distinct roles in the songwriting. 'Girl Crush' is the easiest example, a song where Fairchild wants to step into the position of the woman who is cheating with her man, almost to a point where she's fantasizing about this girl... and yet we never get a verse from, say, Schlapman playing that woman. It could have added more angles to the songwriting, and just like with Lady Antebellum, I'm a little baffled why they don't take advantage of that possibility.

Granted, in this case they probably didn't do it because of the instrumentation... and really, I don't know where to start. I made the comparison to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk earlier, and while this album doesn't have the lunacy of that release, there are more than your fair share of odd, twisted moments that you would not expect from a band like Little Big Town. The marching band and whistles of 'Day Drinkin' that inflates a pretty lightweight song into a heavy stomper, the uneasy guitar interplay on 'Tumble & Fall' that adds some great intensity to the song and the organ creeping in at the back half of the song, the reggae elements on the title track that would have been tolerable with a guitar tone that didn't sound painfully nasal, or the oily drip of 'Girl Crush' that reminded me more of 'Unchained Melody' by The Righteous Brothers with a hint of gospel - which was a weird choice for the song's subject matter. And from there, it gets even more off-kilter, to mixed results: the snarled fluttering guitars and grime of 'Faster Gun' that are trying to evoke a western vibe, the theatrical vibe of 'Good People' and 'Stay All Night' complete with horns that remind me more of mid-90s Reba McEntire, or the outright rock riff and Imagine Dragons-inspired drum progression of 'Save Your Sin'! And that's before we get to songs like 'Things You Don't Think About', the reverb-swollen booming track with some great smoldering guitar leads, or 'Turn The Lights On', probably the most outwardly 'Tusk-like' song with its incredibly textured and expansive mix with a pummeling groove that features handclap percussion and an beat change-up that probably would have worked a little better in concept than it does on record. All of this describes an album that is crammed to the brim with instrumental ideas and flourishes, most of which seem designed to add as much gravity and cacophonous presence to the record...

And the incredibly frustrating part is that huge tracts of it don't work, mostly because the production is incredibly inconsistent. I made the comparison with Eric Church's The Outsiders earlier, and many of the same problems that afflicted that disaster crop up here, courtesy of the same producer Jay Joyce. The most notable is the vocal production, which should never be this heavy or reverb-saturated when you're trying to work with harmonic arrangments as it strips away the subtleties. But subtle might as well be a foreign word on this album, as it isn't just the percussion that crammed to the front of the mix, it's everything, and while he does let the sounds fill out a wall-of-sound, there's no cohesive sense of dynamics. It very much feels like Joyce is trying to force the production to a certain sound instead of letting the instrumentation create it naturally, and thus you get bizarre choices that completely do not work, like burying the guitar tone at the back for the solo on 'Quit Breaking Up With Me', turning 'Day Drinkin' and the title track into these heavy lumbering tracks and saturating them with reverb to make them feel lighter, turning 'Faster Gun' into the icy track with gurgling guitar tones - which has none of the fire of a solid western track, and not really highlighting the harmonies or guitar-driven melodies in a flattering way. Instead of lending them warmth or letting them develop any rollicking power on their own, they become these forced elephantine behemoths that definitely don't match some of the more lightweight songwriting. And the infuriating thing is that Jay Joyce is capable of more restrained production that does highlight the harmonies - 'Silver & Gold' and 'Live Forever' have both textured acoustic guitarwork and a beautifully expansive mix and are easily some of the best songs on this album - it's just a damn shame such restraint doesn't really materialize anywhere else on this record.

So at the end of the day... believe it or not, I wanted to like this album. Hell, as much as Eric Church's The Outsiders didn't work, I wanted that record to succeed too - I like experimentation in country music, look at Sturgill Simpson! But the problem here is in execution, and while Little Big Town has more control and the simpler subject matter does guarantee some extremely solid songs, it should have been better. For me... honestly, this record has grown on me a fair bit after repeated listens and I do appreciate that more of the experimentation sticks the landing, but I'm still falling on a strong 6/10 and a tentative recommendation. You might not have gotten a second Tusk with Pain Killer by Little Big Town, but it definitely is a fascinating listen, and while I'm not one to reward experimentation for its own sake, it's definitely an interesting direction for the band to take.

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