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Little Big Town

The Breaker – 2017 (Capitol)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Little Big Town

Anyone who missed Little Big Town's remarkable 2012 Unplugged performance on CMT should seek it out online. When they sing their monster hit "Pontoon," four hypnotic voices combine to harmonic perfection with no studio tricks - pick from any of the microphones, and it works as the song's lead vocal. But now that the group has ascended to the upper rung of stardom, different challenges arise. How do you compete with yourself fresh from a Grammy for Best Country Song ("Girl Crush")? Do you just burn the house down and start over, as with the 2016 "Wanderlust" album? That release, with its Pharrell Williams production and psychedelic reggaeton sound, left even hardcore fans scratching their heads.

On "The Breaker," the group appears to have decided to return to form, which means harmonies. Husband and wife Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild naturally pair up well; but Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet fit in just as easily. Even the cover of "The Breaker" is a tip-off, with its '60s-style portrait that would nicely suit Peter, Paul, and Mary. LBT also decided to enlist the best songwriters at large. That entails a call to Taylor Swift, who contributed the airtight and instantly-likeable "Better Man." It's sly and different to hear breakup regret - without an ounce of remorse - from the character in the song that did the breaking up. We also get a return from the writing trio that gave us "Girl Crush" with "Lost in California." It's a miss this time, trying to sound like a woozy lovesick dream. But there's enough other winners elsewhere in the soft-tempo "Happy People," sweet nostalgic "Free" and inspirational-without-preachy "Beat Up Bible."

These gorgeous voices work so well when in the service of something bigger with deep felt emotions. They get in trouble when they indulge their love of stadium rock or vapid topics (cruising in one's car is celebrated enough for three records). Some of these tracks can't be called country music by even the most generous of definitions - but for those that can, sit back and prepare yourself for harmony heaven.