[14 December 2008]
Distinctive without being too derivative, Little Big Town has created a concoction of stripped-down acoustic country with pop elements, the result of which is a sound that is far more satisfying than typical Nashville fare. After a move from their former home, Equity Music Group, to Capitol Records, the band has prepared a re-release of their third studio album, A Place to Land.
The new version includes four added tracks, featuring the collaboration with Sugarland and Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”. The album is a continuation of the sound constructed on their stellar, platinum-selling disc, The Road to Here, an album that brought the band their first two Top Ten singles and multiple Grammy nominations. On A Place to Land, Little Big Town blends the best of ‘70s country-rock with a few modern tricks of the trade, creating a crisp, clear musical style that complements a superb set of songs.
Wayne Kirkpatrick, the band’s producer and songwriting partner, melds elements from a number of different musical genres into a natural, distinguishing sound for the band. The members of Little Big Town co-produced and co-wrote the album with Kirkpatrick (save two tracks from the pen of Jon Randall, “Lonely Enough” and “Firebird Fly”, and Kirkpatrick’s own “Love Profound”).
Easy comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and other ‘70s pop-rock/country outfits abound when examining Little Big Town’s releases up to this point, but rather than recycling old sounds, they reinvigorate the music with their tightly-wound harmony work and excellent songwriting. Yes, the band’s influences are evident with every note, but they sing and write with such class that the album seems as fresh as anything country music has offered recently. It’s a focused effort with country arrangements that pay tribute to an era in music where there weren’t hard-and-fast rules. Little Big Town does so with warm, welcoming arrangements of well-crafted songs. Is A Place to Land traditional? Not exactly. But it’s still worthy of respect and even praise at its strongest points.
“Fine Line,” the current country radio single from the quartet, is a strong indication of the direction that Little Big Town takes on the album. Though the song, with Karen Fairchild out front, borrows heavily from the Fleetwood Mac template, it rings true to the band’s own signature style. This style is born out of the familiar themes of love in all forms that marks so much of country music, but the band understands that a message can be sent without the production noise that’s troubled so many recent country releases. In fact, “I’m With the Band” seemed too laid-back for country playlists upon its release last fall, but it would’ve been a perfect fit for ‘70s radio. With a hint of dobro and the band’s intricate harmonies, the song is reminiscent of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, and stands as one of the best road songs in recent memory.
The upbeat “Novocaine” is a jangling rocker that is infectious, energetic and perfect for repeated listening and is a welcome respite from the cool, calm sounds on most of A Place to Land. The song begins with the dobro playing of Randy Kohrs and builds nicely throughout. And “That’s Where I’ll Be” features Dan Dugmore’s intricate pedal and lap steel playing. It’s these little flourishes of distinct country instrumentation, on these songs and beyond, that allow A Place to Land to stay firmly rooted within country boundaries without being constricted by them.
Two different takes on mistreatment at the hands of a troubled man highlight the album’s darker tones. “Evangeline”, an unsettling story of emotional abuse, is given added weight by the lonesome, lingering harmony vocals and a focus on lyrical content that often evades songs of such substance. And “Fury”, the story of one woman’s wish for revenge on her cheating man, rages with intensity and stands as a nice balance to the more laid-back tracks here. Its emphasis on electric guitars creates an interesting, but somehow appropriate impression on such a rootsy, organic album, with Jimi Westbrook taking the lead on the groovy number.
But overall this set has a gentle ebb and flow that makes the saddest songs still rooted in an inner faith and strength and the uplifting numbers sound tinged with melancholy. A Place to Land closes with the four additional tracks. Excluding the surprising-success collaboration “Life in a Northern Town”, the three new songs neither detract nor add appreciably to the theme and the content of the album. The most notable of this trio of laid-back ballads is “Love Profound”, an eloquent Wayne Kirkpatrick-penned song that explores love’s endless rewards, saying that “it rescues, it nurtures, it calms and it heals” with a smoothly-swaying chorus of comfort.
A Place to Land is awash with just enough pop leanings to appeal to a wide audience, but still treads on the country side of popular music. Little Big Town leaves an impression with every note, whether it’s steeped in melancholy or stamped with an infectious joy, and they continue to polish their craft with this latest step in their musical catalog.