Monday, March 13, 2017

album review: 'the breaker' by little big town

It's been a running narrative and critic in-joke that Little Big Town share a fair bit in common with Fleetwood Mac, or at least their progression suggests the similarity. Sure, they started on the outskirts of country, blending in elements of pop and folk, but in 2014 with Pain Killer they took a hard left turn towards the sort of experimentation and melodic tones that ran through Tusk, and got a significant amount of critical acclaim for it. And in 2016 they did it again, ditching Jay Joyce's production for Pharrell's as they made the sunny pop record Wanderlust that seemed to reflect common tones with Fleetwood Mac's Mirages...

And now it's time we put that overdone comparison to bed because at this point of career parallels Fleetwood Mac released Tango In The Night in 1987 in the midst of solo albums and cocaine abuse, and I'm not sure Little Big Town are doing much of either. In fact, the buzz I heard was suggesting that Little Big Town were at least trying to pivot back towards country, reuniting with Jay Joyce on production and recruiting veteran country songwriters like Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna to help. And to me that was a really good sign - not just because I wanted to avoid the implosion, but Jay Joyce has steadily become a more subtle and nuanced producer and there were at least traces of interesting ideas on Pain Killer that I'd love to see developed further, especially if the writing could match it. I wasn't going to say I had high hopes - I was lukewarm on the lead-off single 'Better Man', which was contributed by Taylor Swift of all people - but I still go back to cuts like 'Live Forever' and 'Tumble & Fall' off Pain Killer, and if they got the awful pop impulses out of their system on Wanderlust - which was thankfully ignored by anyone with taste - this could be good? So how is Little Big Town's return?

Here's the thing: I've gone over this record a fair few times and if you were looking for a 'return to form' for Little Big Town, this is definitely a step in the right direction... but at the same time it frustrates me immensely, because this is a record that has some excellent songs interspaced between too many ideas poorly executed. And these songs aren't so much bad as they are experiments that just didn't stick the landing. I hate to say this, but despite all of Little Big Town's aspirations to be experimental, they stick the landing the best when they make straightforward pop country. Sometimes it's good to focus on what you do well, and while this is a step in the right direction, it's one that takes way too many detours.

And here's the thing, the fundamentals of Little Big Town are promising. When their vocal harmonic arrangements are on point, they sound great, and while I still wish that they'd opt for songwriting that actually incorporates interplay between the singers, they do have chemistry. And yet what continues to frustrate me is that once again, Karen Fairchild takes the lead on half the songs - and yes, I get that she's the most immediately recognizable voice and she has finally brought in a little more subtlety... but come on, even things out a little here! Sure, I get that Kimberley Schlapmann doesn't exactly have the strongest or most expressive tones, but both Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook are potent and explosive singers in their own right, it couldn't hurt to give them more to do!

And yet that's a convention that Little Big Town has inexplicably stuck with despite changing up so much else, especially when we pivot to discussions of instrumentation. And look, for as much as Jay Joyce has steadily improved as a producer, for as much organic blending that Little Big Town are using to create a saturated mix I'm increasingly convinced he's just not the right fit for balancing a lot of this atmosphere. Oh, for certain he gets the gist - the blurry blends of guitar and pedal steel against skeletal bass and drum progressions matching the vocal harmonies do a pretty impressive job in forming a rich melodic sound that clearly was stealing a few glances at Miranda Lambert's The Weight Of These Wings or the better cuts from Kip Moore's Wild Ones. But like with so much of his production, you always get the feeling that Joyce just doesn't have the fine touch to add in the grit and balance to really make the mix feel rich and organic, which could turn good atmospheric touches into spell-binding ones. Oh, that's not saying they don't get close, but take the example of the lead-off single 'Better Man' - the blurry mandolin textures hold melody well, but imagine how much better the song could sound with consistent organic percussion that didn't feel so rigid or obviously fake, especially right from the start. I'll give Little Big Town credit for blending a lot of these tones better than most mainstream country acts - 'Free' does it with deeper guitar grooves, 'We Went To The Beach' does it with some sandy touches and a thicker acoustic line, and 'Lost In California' picks up on a oddly hypnotic blend of piano, hazy guitar, and a firm underlying bass that quietly has one of the most enticing hooks on the record that's kind of spoiled by outro flourishes that weren't needed. And then we get the more rock-inspired tracks, and Joyce does get points for giving songs like 'Rollin' and 'Night On Our Side' some actual groove and muscle but by the time we get to the final three songs that play to much more straightforward neotraditional country tones, I'm wondering why Little Big Town doesn't just stick with organic textures, real percussion, and not bother with clumsy touches they don't need when the melodies are strong enough on their own.

But of course, Little Big Town have always had an uncanny knack for getting good hooks - where they've struggled more is in the songwriting, which is probably why they hired some heavyweights this time around. And let's not mince words, Lori McKenna's well-framed insight and detail has reached the point where you can start identifying her songs almost on instinct, along with the faded, wistful but honest embers of times long past that give her work a consistent weight. Hell, from the themes of being a decent human being to find contentment on 'Happy People' you didn't even have to tell me that McKenna wrote it, even if it does feel a bit like a more broad version of 'Humble And Kind'. And that mature retrospection also translates into the focus on smaller meaning on 'Free' - although Natalie Hemby's touch definitely shows through as well - or even to the reflections on aging and death on 'Don't Die Young, Don't Get Old' - I was surprised McKenna had a credit on 'Lost In California', but it does kind of fit and shows a knack for more impressionistic love songs. But what all of this reflects is that while Little Big Town can hit greatness - from the lingering breakup ache on 'When Somebody Stops Loving You', where McKenna's attention to detail and nuance again shines through that's immediately followed with the guilt of initiating the breakup on the superb title track and closer courtesy most of TJ Osborne - when they don't have great writers behind them they can stumble. I've already talked on Billboard BREAKDOWN about how much Taylor Swift's voice comes through on 'Better Man' in the worst way possible with questionable word choices implying abuse - one of those cases where vagueness definitely works against you - but then you have songs like 'Drivin Around', which just feels clumsy and listless. At least 'We Went To The Beach' tried to tap into detailed nostalgia instead of just punching the clock, but there are a few tunes here that almost feel too vague to have distinct impact, and not in a way that compliments the omnipresent haze of this record.

But beyond that, with every listen to this album I'm left thinking it should be better than it is - because make no mistakes, the great songs here are amazingly strong. The title track, 'Free', 'Night On Our Side' more for a great hook that oddly reminds me a lot of a Cam song like 'My Mistake', 'We Went The Beach' and 'When Somebody Stops Loving You' are both solid for their nuance. Hell, even though 'Lost In California' meanders, I'm almost inclined to give it a pass thanks to the atmosphere. But it's not a consistent record, with the other tracks not so much leaning towards bad as they are formless and forgettable, experiments that just kind of fizzled out into indistinct haze, or rock touches that feel incongruous. As such, on the strength of some truly great songs I'm giving this record a light 7/10 and a recommendation for Little Big Town fans, but I'm not sure how much viability this album will have, and it'll depend a lot on which singles they pick going forward, because there is a lot of potential. Beyond that... if you're curious, it's worth a listen, check it out.

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