Little Big Town – The Breaker
So called because of its final track and because of the hard time the band had recording it, The Breaker’, Little Big Town’s 8th LP sees the band coming back into the Country fold again after last year’s bizarre experiment with Pharrel Williams on ‘Wanderlust’. The less said about ‘Wanderlust’ the better really although that willingness to experiment and push the boundaries has served to give the band the shot in the arm that they maybe needed at this stage in their careers.
Previous album, ‘Painkiller’, was a defining moment in LBT’s story, propelling them into the big leagues and establishing them as the premier vocal group in the Country genre. It was loud, bombastic and full of sass even if the biggest song on it, hit wise, was the tender ‘Girl Crush’ but it was also very much Karen Fairchild’s album – all the best songs were hers and for someone arriving late to the band’s repertoire you may well be forgiving for thinking it was Fairchild’s band, with her as the focal point supported by the others. ‘The Breaker’ re-dresses that imbalance in what seems like a deliberate move, bringing the other three members of LBT back into the spotlight again. All the best songs are theirs here in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to test out the loyalty of the new batch of fans who were expecting ‘Painkiller PII’ rather than a nostalgic, retrospective, quiet Fleetwood Mac infused album that needs to be given time and room to breathe before it will give up its secrets.
‘The Breaker’ begins with ‘Happy People’ a short, Karen Fairchild led track that seems to pick up where ‘Wanderlust’ left off with its pop-infused beats and distinctly 1970’s sound. Track 2 ‘Night on Our Side’ will appeal to fans of ‘Painkiller’ more than any other track on ‘The Breaker’. It begins with some great acapella before a guitar driven beat begins but this one is a vocal showcase for the boys with both Jimi and Phillip providing vocals on the most obvious single on the album. After the success of ‘Painkiller’ under the guiding hand of Karen Fairchild it is a brave move to let her take a step away from the spotlight but it is rewarded here with one of the best songs on the album.
Track 3, ‘Lost in California’ wouldn’t have been recorded in the way it has been without the band experimenting with Pharrel Williams on ‘Wanderlust’ – quietly and very understated, it has some atmospheric and quite trippy sounds underneath the guitar lines, giving the whole song quite an ethereal, dreamy feel that matches the nature of the lyrics with Fairchild back at the helm on a song that suits her voice without stretching it in any way.
‘Free’ sees Fairchild still front and centre on a song that begins the theme of nostalgia and looking back to simpler times that so permeates a lot of the lyrics on ‘The Breaker’. Another quiet, dreamy song but repeated plays, patience and perseverance will bring its own rewards and this track will begin to grab you. It will also work really well live as the band’s vocals combine beautifully on the chorus.
‘Drivin’ Around’ sees the band back in a rare up-tempo mode that showcases their vocals again but offers little lyrically. This is a throw-away, fun song about…………….drivin’ around. It’s fine and it does lift the mood of the album after two quiet, trippy songs but ultimately won’t add anything to Little Big Town’s legacy beyond this album and tour rotation. It still feels quite trippy in its production – coming across quite Beatles-esque in places – again a possible leftover effect of the ‘Wanderlust’ sessions as the band experiment with the boundaries of Country music.
Track 6, ‘Went to the Beach’ is simply outstanding. Another nostalgic, quiet song about the effects and importance of the coast over differing phases of the narrator’s life. Sung by Philip Sweet it suits his voice perfectly as he reminisces about fighting with his siblings, partying with his friends and honeymooning with his wife – all at the beach. The production and programming is a little more traditional here and the band are rewarded with the first real peace of magic on the album.
‘..Beach’ is followed by the Taylor Swift penned, ‘A Better Man’, another quieter, bitter sweet song about a failed romance. Again, despite its heavyweight writing team and the good job Fairchild and the rest of the band do on the vocals, this is another song that needs time and space to breath. You really need to digest the lyrics and listen closely to the vocals before this song begins to grab you. Casual listeners in radio-land may well finish unsatisfied, as was I the first time I heard it, left with a sort of vague ‘was that it?’ type of puzzlement but, similar to many of the songs on ‘The Breaker’, repeated listens and love and care will bring their rewards.
Another up-tempo stomper, “Rollin’’ follows next. I’d put this track in the same category as ‘Drivin’ Around’ in that it is a rare moment of up-tempo fun amongst a set of seriously quiet and nostalgic songs and therefore it does an important job on ‘The Breaker’ in lifting the mood and giving us something to tap our feet to but it will ultimately be consigned to ‘album track’ by history as the band move forward.
‘Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old’ sees the band back in hippy, trippy ‘Lost in California’ mode with the girls, Fairchild and Kimberley Schlapman, providing some beautiful vocals in an interesting song that, again, needs some perseverance on CD but will be potentially beautiful live, as the quieter guitar provides the backdrop to the harmonies. Schlapman then gets to helm her own song on the next track, ‘Beat Up Bible’, the most Country infused song on ‘The Breaker. Just her and an acoustic guitar as she sings about the aforementioned book and its importance on her life. Another nostalgic, thoughtful song about the importance of mundane objects on our lives. Similar to ‘We Went to the Beach’, ‘Beat Up Bible’ gives the listener pause for thought, time to reflect on the things of importance in our lives, be they people or objects. Sweet’s ‘..Beach’ and Schlapman’s ‘..Bible’ are both one and the same – talisman or totems on which we can consider the importance of objects or places in the emotional resonance of our lives.
Jimi Westbrook gets his moment in the sun on the next song, ‘When Someone Stops Loving You’. A tender, beautiful song about the loss of love and how the impact of that one thing can destroy one person’s world whilst the world itself and all the people in it go about their business, oblivious. This one again, has overtones of the 1970’s in its production and instrumentation, in-fact in some respects with a change of instruments and twist of programming it could have easily been a Leo Sayer or Barry Manilow song. Westbrook will slay live with this one. ‘When Someone….’ Is probably the closest song on ‘The Breaker’ to ‘Girl Crush’ – not in its lyrics, obviously, but in its tone and feel. A sleeper hit in waiting and a showcase for the non-Karen Fairchild incarnation of the band.
The album finishes with its title track, ‘The Breaker’. This could easily be the sequel to ‘When You Love Someone’, the flip side of that song – from the other person’s point of view. ‘I shot the stars out of your sky, took the love right from your eyes and I did it all knowing that you thought I was the hero of your heart but I’ll forever be the breaker.” These are the best lyrics on the album – providing us with a ‘he said – she said’ reply to either ‘A Better Man’ or ‘When You Love Someone’. It’s great work by the boys again, this time Sweet on vocals augmented by nothing more than an acoustic guitar and no harmonies at all, anywhere. It tells a tender tale and rounds of the album in reflective, nostalgic mode, wholly appropriate in light of the songs gone before it.
What a brave move from Little Big Town – firstly, to follow their biggest commercial success to date, ‘Painkiller’ with such an uncommercial album and secondly to push Karen Fairchild into the background and let the other three singers all have their moments on the best songs on the album. It shows just how tight, how unified the band are that they are willing to do that. It also highlights, after the bizarre decision to do ‘Wanderlust’, where the heart of this band really is – it isn’t chasing pop success with EDM and L.A. celebs, it’s family trips to the beach, it’s reflecting on lost love and it’s bibles and other emotional tokens designed to represent the passing of time and the transiency of life. If you are looking for another ‘Painkiller’ then this album is not for you, but if you have grown and evolved a little as a person since the band released that album, as they clearly have, then you may well get a lot out of continuing that journey with them – this album encapsulates the journey of both being a fan of Little Big Town and of life: sometimes it’ll be hard, sometimes it’ll be sad but sometimes you’ll end up at the beach.
James Daykin : Twitter – @rockjames