Sunday, June 19, 2016

album review: 'wanderlust' by little big town

The release of this album should not be as controversial as it is.

And make no mistake, it's been controversial - which is always kind of bizarre considering Little Big Town is not a band you would expect to court controversy. But between 'Girl Crush' last year and the lead-up to this release, this group has somehow wound up in the headlines more than you'd ever expect. But then again, given how consistently Little Big Town has been compared to Fleetwood Mac, another mixed gender group that has been steadily sliding across genres, it's not that surprising. Their 2014 release Pain Killer was considered by many critics to be analogous to Tusk in its genre-bending and experimentation - most of which fell flat courtesy of Jay Joyce's overdone production.

And yet thanks to the success of 'Girl Crush', Little Big Town were bigger than ever and attracted a producer not exactly known for country: Pharrell Williams, one of the big names behind The Neptunes in the 2000s and nowadays known for his work on The Voice and the song 'Happy', which absolutely ruled 2014. So in between a series of trips between LA and Nashville and even a quick collaboration with Justin Timberlake, they put out a quick breezy record that the band themselves made very clear wasn't country at all. And let me blunt: that's fine, I was fully confident the band would sound fine in a pop context, and I'm not going to blame them because desperate country radio programmers would be plugging their songs in regardless. And if they wanted to dash out a quick side project that would be their version of Fleetwood Mac's Mirage - although you have to hope it's better than that record - I was certainly curious. So how did Wanderlust turn out?

To be blunt - it didn't turn out at all. And look, there are plenty of excuses and lowered expectations that could be made for this record: it's a side project, it's not intended to be remotely substantial, it's just a lightweight summer project that's not intended for real impact in between country releases... but even by that standard, this record fell incredibly flat for me. At best, it's a failed experiment that I can't see gaining traction anywhere, but at worst, it's the sort of miscalculation that treads up to the point of being so insubstantial it's barely worth the words I'm saying here. You want the short of it? Wanderlust is intended as a lightweight fun pastiche of sunshine pop from the late 60s and mid 70s, and it can't even rise to that level!

So how the hell does that happen? Well, a big part of it is composition. Not production - Pharrell's production has the sort of hyper-clean polish that you'd expect from his pop work that's very analogous to what he did on G I R L in 2014 - but from a compositional point-of-view these songs barely feel finished and oddly sour when they do! Electric guitar lines are isolated fragments that rarely coalesce into consistent melodies, strings are even spikier accents, and the acoustic grooves are universally underwhelming. It doesn't help that for as pop as these tracks are, they nearly all run out of ideas or flow within the first minute to ninety seconds, and that's before the abrupt endings that rarely ever pay off a satisfying chord progression. And you know, this half-assembled form could have worked with a rougher mix that was a little more jam-band inspired, but so many of the percussion lines are stiff and mechanical that it often feels like they're the only things holding these songs together! Now that's not saying there aren't moments that come together: the best songs here are 'Work' and 'Miracle', which have the most complete composition thanks to the organ and surf rock guitar on the former and a little more soul in the latter. But when you contrast that with the odd stiffness of 'One Dance' or the misshapen messes of 'C'mon' and 'Skinny Dipping' or the borderline trap percussion that comes on 'The Boat' and really adds nothing to the mix, and I'm left feeling that these songs just feel unfinished more than anything. Take 'One Of Those Days', which has something of a sunnier mix with the springy acoustic segments and a pretty obvious 'Like A Prayer' interpolation in the melody, because with the 60s-inspired vocal harmonies you'd expect more of an instrumental swell or climax that just doesn't happen. And again, I'd be inclined to just disregard these as demos, except for the obscene amount of polish on the production that makes everything far too crisp to blend well together and nearly always the sandy cymbals too high in the mix.

And speaking of awkward blending, the vocal harmonies. It's always been one of Little Big Town's greatest strengths that they can bring multiple complex vocal lines to harmonize together - and wow, I'm underwhelmed by these arrangements. First off, the mood: for as much as this record is trying to feel breezy and lightweight - and man, it's trying hard - it's a little discomfiting how few of these songs have the effortless ease or even sense of fun you'd expect some from pop music in this vein. It leads to songs that feel more dour and serious than they should ever be, and not even close to fun, and while I'll give credit to them for trying for interplay on 'C'mon', it's so clumsily assembled that the chemistry just evaporates. And that's not counting the vocal arrangements that are just flat awful, with 'Skinny Dipping' being the easy example here where the smeared over quality makes all of them sound like they have heatstroke, or 'The Boat' where it tries for a nautical style and outside of the hook never builds any sort of impact. Now that's not saying there aren't a few cases where they get close: 'Miracle' has the sort of late-70s AM soft rock vibe that isn't incredibly soulful but is trying a little harder, and 'Work' has enough barking gruffness that you might even imagine it on one of their regular albums, but otherwise, it feels like these arrangements are trying for a pale facsimile of the past rather than adopt the style and do more with it - which is baffling, because with Pharrell in production you'd think he'd guide them more in the right direction!

And on that note, might as well briefly mention the lyrics - and I mean to keep this brief because for the most part they are completely pointless. And that would have been fine if the music had been breezier and lighter, but with more minor progressions you start looking deeper and immediately start wishing you didn't. 'One Dance' is a particularly disjointed affair, where Karen Fairchild spends most of the song telling off her male counterpart who is a bit of a sleaze and not giving her attention, and then it shifts towards a bridge where they're going to be the 'couple of the year', what the hell? Or take 'The Boat', where he's going out on the water with faith to stand strong... so why is he waiting for the rain? And then you just have bad choices of words, like on 'Willpower' - and maybe it's just me, but while describing love as losing one's willpower might be accurate, it rings as as awkward. But the larger issue is that for a sunny pop experiment, very few of these songs actually find satisfaction, or seem to go in the complete opposite direction. I might like 'Work', but it's not exactly a relaxing track, and both 'Miracle' and 'One Of Those Days' seem more searching for relief than anything else. But even if I throw the entire conceit of this being a lightweight summer record out the window and just think of it as a throwback pop exercise, it still feels incredibly stilted, clumsy, and barely even close to fun - and when the lyrics are this lacking in weight, I stop caring!

In short, I didn't like this at all, but I'm less angry as I am confused. I don't follow the throughline of logic for Little Big Town with Wanderlust - but then again, I'm not sure there was any logic, because when pressed for an explanation the band couldn't really explain what this album is. And yet for as much as you could argue there doesn't need to be, it doesn't make this any less unfocused, sloppily written, oddly sour, and completely lacking in weight. And if it wasn't going to have any weight, at least it could have been fun, but I don't think I've heard a record in recent memory that tries this hard to be so rarely enjoyable. It's incoherent, a considerable step down for both Little Big Town and Pharrell, netting a solid 4/10 from me, and no recommendation in hell from me. I appreciate them trying something new, but if there's an album that gives proof that Little Big Town should stick more with country or folk, genres they at least seem to understand a bit better, it's this one. Skip it.

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