My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Jimi Westbrook

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

the-breakerI sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

Grade: B

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘Pain Killer’

1035x1035-lbt-pain-killer-coverLittle Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer with red hued wild abandon, unapologetically subverting convention in favor of experimentation. If they thought of it, they used it, no matter how outlandish the result.

More often than not Pain Killer devolves into heavy rock, often smothering the individual tracks. “Turn The Lights On” is a progressive mess. “Stay All Night” and “Things You Don’t Think About” drown their harmonies in crashing drums. “Faster Gun” turns up the sexy factor with a filter on Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook’s vocal that renders them indistinguishable. “Save Your Sin” is more heavy metal than anything; a waste of what could be a shining moment for Kimberly Schlapman. “Good People” is just more of the same, with rock and pop colliding, but not meshing at all.

The band is slightly more enjoyable on “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” which is catchy, but rests its fortunes on a terribly unintelligent lyric. Lead single “Day Drinking,” which actually has structure and audible mandolin, is a step up from there.

For the remaining tracks, Little Big Town is good, if not great, or excellent. I love the title track, even though it features elements of the album at its worst, because the chorus is excellent and the band sounds engaged like nowhere else on the project. Second single “Girl Crush,” which only could’ve been written in this day and age, is an inventive lyric and one of Karen Fairchild’s most committed vocal performances. I do wish “Live Forever” retained more a country sound, but Joyce should be credited for a beautifully breathable harmony-centric production bed that’s too lush, but still a showcase for the band. Eerily similar is “Silver and Gold,” which keeps the harmonies in the forefront, but could’ve been a bit more interesting if Joyce had borrowed from “Shut Up Train,” one their strongest ballads.

Pain Killer is the blandest album of Little Big Town’s career. The elements of rock, pop, and metal do nothing to elevate their sound and are thus a distraction that deflects from their talent instead of enhancing it. The record is not without its bright spots, like Eric Church’s Joyce-produced The Outsiders. But I find it difficult to derive pleasure from wading through the dense forest to find them.

Grade: C-

Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

The foursome focused most heavily on their work produced by Jay Joyce, a response to the lukewarm reception of their most recent Wayne Kirkpatrick-produced set, 2010’s The Reason Why. Apart from down playing their country credentials, their work with Joyce is far more guitar heavy, which afford them to gave the banjos and mandolins a break for most of the evening.

Pain Killer got a generous showcase, a risk seeing as no one, not even me, has heard the album yet. They played more than half the album and while most of the tracks ran together, I could hear something special in the title track and Schlapman’s vocal showcase on “Save Your Sin.”

Tornado made up the majority of what was left and tracks like “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “On Fire Tonight” fit in perfectly with the vibe of the evening. “Pontoon” had the whole crowd singing along and “Your Side of the Bed” was as effective live as on the album. “Sober,” which I expected to be treated more acoustically, was a slight disappointment, but the magic of the track shone through. Fairchild traded her sparkle coat for long leathery fringe to croon “Tornado,” a set highlight.

I did appreciate how they sprinkled in subtle nods to the past ten years, gifting the crowed with “Little White Church” and “A Little More You.” I had completely forgotten about “A Little More You” and was happy when they resurrected it. “Boondocks,” easily the band’s signature song, came towards the end of the evening with a drum heavy beginning that rendered the track almost unrecognizable at first.

At one point Fairchild commented on this being their second ever performance on a revolving stage (they played the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before) and how they were nervous about letting down the audience with their lack of production.

After introducing their band, the group commented on their history as a band and how 2014 marks twenty-five years together. The women talked about how IMG_3751Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook went to college together and their first meeting with Phillip Sweet. Instead of logically launching into “I’m With The Band,” which they didn’t play, they gave us a couple of tracks that influenced them. First was a stripped down almost bluesy cover of the Oak Ridge Boys classic “Elvira” that got such an inventive take from the band, it took until the chorus before I knew what they were singing. The other track that influenced them was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a logical choice seeing as they’re always being compared. In fact, when I was playing Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance live album a while back, I thought it was Little Big Town on opener “The Chain.”

At the encore they turned the spotlight on Lori McKenna, who helped write tracks on their most recent albums. Hailing from Stoughton, MA, McKenna is ours as much as she is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter. She was brought on stage to sing a new song “Humble and Kind.”

Just because the show was steeped far more in rock and roll than what most would consider country music didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or a huge disappointment. Did I long for them to grace us with an acoustic set? Yes, I did. But they are still exceptionally talented and perfectly showcased it during their set. Little Big Town worked the stage brilliantly, a job mostly regulated to Sweet who threw many a guitar pick into the crowd and was, no pun intended, sweet to the audience the whole show. I was thrilled that I finally got to them, and it was an added bonus that it occurred at my favorite music venue, a place I would’ve deemed far too small for them at this point in their careers.

Singer/Songwriter Sara Haze opened the show with a thirty-minute set focused on originals and “Riot,” a song she had cut by Rascal Flatts on their latest album. Haze, who had a guy accompanying her on guitar, was very good although a little too indistinctive. Haze also joined Little Big Town on stage during the encore.

Singles Round-Up: Pistol Annies, Little Big Town, and Carrie Underwood

Hush-HushPistol Annies – “Hush, Hush”

 If “Hush, Hush” proves anything, it’s that the Pistol Annies sure know how to cultivate a brand. They’re hell bent on taking the redneck woman from deep in the holler thing as far as it’ll take them, whether it means they take risks thematically or not.

The finished product is good, but the slightly too loud electric guitar compromises the vocals a little too much. Angaleena Presley’s voice is a little thin for this type of thick production while Miranda Lambert sounds as though she’s on twang overdrive; almost overcompensating to prove she’s still a country girl. Only Ashley Monroe sounds perfectly comfortable here and she proves it with a confident vocal that makes Presley and Lambert sound amateurish.

Hell on Heels is going to be a tough act to follow. They may be up to the challenge, but “Hush, Hush” needed a bit more polish before it was ready for release. I’m digging the overall feel of the track but the story seems predictable from them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high, and while they almost reach it, they never quite get there all the way.

Grade: B

Your-Side-of-BedLittle Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”

Let’s get it out of the way. “Your Side of the Bed” is a direct rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed” from Here For The Party. Wilson’s song wasn’t a single, but the similarities between the songs are hard to ignore – both songs cover the same ground almost identically.

Little Big Town has turned the concept into a duet between married band members Karen Fairchild (once again singing lead on a LBT single) and Jimi Westbrook. Trading off the verses, they exude the right amount of desperation to make the story work. Jay Joyce also helps by framing them in a hauntingly understated 1970s soft rock tinged production that works nicely in their favor. The track is gorgeous, and the most sonically interesting mainstream single since Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Your Eyes.”

I’m just having a trouble with the seemingly obligatory choral harmonies. They delude the pain Fairchild and Westbrook bring to the song by overcrowding the moments of greatest emotional impact with third parties not connected with the verses. A bit less vocal clutter, and this could’ve been one of the year’s best singles – a direct rip-off or not.

Grade: B+ 

15gsfbaCarrie Underwood – “See You Again”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this song at all. “See You Again” has an engaging melody, the strong type of vocal performance that Underwood excels at, and the track is a quintessential earworm, listen a few times, and you’ll be singing it all day.

So where’s the problem? Well, for starters, “See You Again” is classic power pop and bares no resemblance to country music whatsoever. That doesn’t help matters any as the choruses have been reduced to a muffled and bombastic mess that leaves Underwood no choice but to screech her way to next verse and bridge. This was the point in the Blown Away album cycle to change it up, with a “Do You Think About Me” for instance, opposed to sticking with more of the same. Safe filler like this doesn’t do a career any justice in the long term.

At least we’ve been spared “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” “One Way Ticket” or “Nobody Ever Told You” getting released. It isn’t saying much, but at least there’s that.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Little Big Town – ‘Tornado’

You’d think the combination of irresistible four-part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town has had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite caught on with the fans or country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sang and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one hit. Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”  Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.  I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which is turned into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.  “On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped-up rock that’s well-presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on this album) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Grade: A