The quartet Little Big Town hails from Homewood, Alabama, and their first hit was about living in the “Boondocks”. Sometimes it seems like they choose for singles their songs that seem to most directly tap into small-town/rural imagery. Past success with those singles might be why the first single from their fifth album, Tornado, is called “Pontoon” and — yes — is a straightforward chronicle of relaxing on a pontoon boat. It’s a bluesy bit of total fluff. If there’s a life-message subtext here, it could be that floating is better than climbing (“You can climb the ladder / just don’t rock the boat”), but it’s so understated that I don’t think it really exists. Instead you get dumb stuff like “Step onto the astro turf / get yourself a coozie.” The foursome sing together on the chorus, but they’re not fully tapping into their harmonic potential; maybe they even get that this song isn’t worthy of significant harmonizing. Or maybe I just need to hear this song while on a pontoon to get it. I’m reminded of what my one-and-a-half-year-old-son said when I pointed out a pontoon boat on the water once, asking him if he sees the boat. “No, no boat, no boat,” was his response. Already, he knows a real boat when he sees one.
If that’s going to be the route they take to singles, there will be three more from Tornado, somewhat better but still not the best songs on the album. Next might be “Pavement Ends”, the rollicking opener, wherein a boy and a girl head out of town in a truck for a campfire. It has attempts at humor (a “That’s what she said” after a reference to pine), and all four singing in a “we’re having fun” tone about country life, with lines like “Let the good times roll”. It feels like a country hoedown show at Six Flags. Another choice would be the title track, a weather metaphor for revenge; add it to the ever-growing list of women’s revenge tales in country. And then there’s “Front Porch Thing”, which starts with a cappella singer (You know, like they’re just sitting on their porch, harmonizing) before a modern “blues” stomp comes in. The intended menace in that stomp represents economic woes, though the song is built of stock images: a train whistle, crickets, creeks, guitars. They sing of looking for something to “kill these country blues”, but they don’t sound unhappy at all.
While they sing together well, on all of these songs, and on much of the album, I miss the vocal tapestry they can build – the way on their last album The Reason Why they could build their voices up together until their singing became almost an abstraction, its own entity of feeling and sound that made you not hear or care about the lyrics. On Tornado, they get closest to that when there’s sadness in their songs, when they’re singing about lovers instead of locusts. “Your Side of the Bed” occupies a great middle ground between clouds of emotion and concrete details, in its description of both a bedroom and a couple’s struggles. Here they also slow down enough to highlight the loveliness in their music, something sorely needed on their more “fun” tracks. Elsewhere, even when they’re singing optimistically and in a sunny way about love, they keep enough quiet wonder in the song to jibe nicely with the dreamy way they combine their voices; on “Sober”, for example, even with its sentiment “I love being in love”. But that dreamy quietude does come out best on the bittersweet, lonely songs, like “Leaving in Your Eyes” and “Can’t Go Back”, where their voices take on a glowing quality as they hope for love not to end (“I don’t want to be a witness to the end of you and me”).
There are enough songs in that vein that I can convince myself it is their real agenda, even as they foreground the goofier and “country-er” songs, one of which has already climbed the radio charts, and throw in a couple of songs that try to “rock” a little more than I’m comfortable letting them rock. The album ends on a truly spellbinding note, though, with my favorite quiet song of theirs yet – “Night Owl”. In that title image is all of the atmosphere they load into the song. It starts, “Where the steeples / and the skyways meet / through the lonely and deserted streets…”, with the demeanor of a Christmas hymn. At its core, it’s a love song, of course, but one where the man’s voice and woman’s voice sing back and forth in a gentle, alluring conversation. It makes me ponder what a gorgeous album they could make if they weren’t also trying to maintain a career as country music superstars.