My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kimberly Schlapman

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

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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.

Single Review – Little Big Town – ‘Sober’

kimberlyschlapman_simplysouthern_hWhen Little Big Town had their coming out last year with “Pontoon,” there was a collective sense of dread that the quasi-bluegrass band who’d built a solid reputation with excellent faire like “Little White Church,” “Boondocks,” and “Fine Line” had givin in to the pressures of modern Nashville and sacrificed their artistic integrity in favor of commercial viability. When The Reasons Why bombed they had to do something drastic or risk fading into oblivion, a fate worse then death for a group with their level of talent.

They’ve mostly gotten it right although Capitol has been leaning too heavily on Karen Fairchild, positioning her as the lead vocalist in a quartet where each member adds their own distinct richness to a song when they step out front. Thankfully they’ve finally regulated her to the background, allowing the criminally underappreciated Kimberly Schlapman to step out front for the first time.

When Tornado hit a year ago, critics and fans alike singled out “Sober” as the record’s highlight, a blend of their classic sound with Jay Joyce’s modern touches. At the time, I said (and still believe):

“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.”

“Sober” has gotten even better with age, showcasing the band at their best. Schlapman gives a pure country vocal that’s a delight, and the choral harmonies are intoxicating. I just hope country radio has room for a song this overtly country, one that oozes so much class. They’ve let me down before; let’s hope they rise to the occasion this time. “Sober” is one of the best singles of the fall season and needs to be heard.

Grade: A

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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 

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Four The Record’

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.  Read more of this post