For their eighth studio album, Little Big Town has returned, for better or worse, to somewhat familiar territory.
Following 2016’s “Wanderlust,” essentially the modern equivalent of an EP, which differed wildly from their classic country sound, the Alabama vocal quartet went back to a more conventional sound for “The Breaker.”
Little Big Town is a rarity in modern country music, as they are very successful with both fans and critics, while existing largely within the confines of the traditions of the genre. Also, along with Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry, they’ve carried the mantle for coed groups in a landscape dominated by solo artists and Florida Georgia Line.
This is not to say that they are derivative. They have put out a string of singles over the last decade-plus, which, while not reinventing the wheel, are hardly imitators. But a large part of the expectation of Little Big Town’s music is that they will still conform to a certain formula: a few fun rockers, a few ballads, a few knowing references to rural (and often, merely suburban) lifestyles, and of course -- vocal harmonies. Lots and lots of vocal harmonies. And to be fair, they are quite good at them.
As has become apparent over the years, while all four vocalists in the group get their shots at singing lead, it is Karen Fairchild who rightfully gets most of the attention. While Kimberly Schlapman is a capable vocalist, particularly in a backing capacity, and Jimi Westbrook (Fairchild’s husband) and Phillip Sweet can effectively throw a wrench into albums. It is Fairchild whose dynamic voice consistently makes for the most interesting songs and, not coincidentally, the group’s biggest hits.
Her vocal chops are displayed most prominently on the album’s first single, the Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man,” in which she confesses heartbreak over an ended relationship that she fully recognizes, needed to end.
Like “Girl Crush,” off 2014’s “Pain Killer,” the band’s most recent country album, Fairchild alternates seamlessly between soulful and vulnerable. But while “Girl Crush” suffered from being a mundane composition that needed superb vocals to become the massive hit that it did, “Better Man” could’ve been sung by anybody and been a standout track. It just so happens it was sung by one of the genre’s top talents.
Fairchild sings lead on exactly half of the album’s twelve tracks. (Long gone, it appears, are the days of all four members singing lead, as was the case on the group’s 2005 breakthrough “Boondocks.”) And, in addition to the lead single, she sings the album’s first promotional single, “Happy People.”
It is a curious album-opening choice, as it is a somewhat small track, contrasting sharply with the next song, Jimi Westbrook’s “Night on Our Side,” which is produced in a heavy, typically modern pop-country manner. But “Happy People” provides a pleasant introduction, and is among the album’s better songs, even if it is not overtly dynamic.
More dynamic is “Free,” a direct descendant of Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” (both were co-written by Natalie Hemby). And “Drivin’ Around,” one of the album’s more prominent examples of the group’s hallmark vocal harmonies. Although the competent but overlong “Lost in California” and the halfhearted ballad “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old” are essentially album filler, neither does much to diffuse the belief that Fairchild is the star here.
Easily the most interesting of the male-sung songs is “Rollin,” an energetic tune well-placed on the album as the successor to the excellent, but melancholy, “Better Man.”
Like the dark, bluesy “Faster Gun,” which succeeded “Girl Crush” on “Pain Killer,” this song gives at least some hint that the men in the group could hold their own without the assistance of Fairchild. But unfortunately, the rest of their songs are mostly nondescript.
The promo single, “We Went to the Beach,” despite what the title might suggest (thankfully), is not a bro-country ode, but rather a tepid bit of youthful nostalgia.
Generally, “The Breaker” starts strong but tapers off toward the end. The final three tracks are mostly unenergetic affairs. Schlapman’s “Beat Up Bible” may have been better served with Fairchild’s voice. (Ironically, Schlapman could have easily handled some of Fairchild’s lesser songs.) Additionally, “When Someone Stops Loving You” and the album’s title track “The Breaker” are standard-issue breakup songs.
When it comes down to it, Little Big Town recorded a safe album. Fans of their previous work will enjoy it, and those who have disliked their previous work probably won’t. Speaking as more of a Little Big Town respecter than a Little Big Town fan, this album does not move the needle too much, though there are a few songs on it which are among their very best. As such, I would give the album a soft recommendation.
If you have an opinion on Little Big Town already, you probably have an opinion on this album before listening to it. And if you aren’t familiar with Little Big Town, they have provided you an album which captures the highs and lows of the band’s discography up to this point.