Two years after Little Big Town entered the mainstream with their Grammy-nominated hit “Girl Crush,” they’re moving into a whole new state on their new album. They abandoned Nashville’s local color to roam freely through the world of pop. To help them realize their “Wanderlust,” they hired producer Pharrell, but it seems the shake-up cut both ways. You’ll find few of Pharrell’s stereotypical moves here, at least once you get past the opening track, “One Dance,” whose funky gait blurs the lines with a certain hit we all know.
From there, Pharrell and the foursome shed nearly every Music Row expectation, save the mandate to make everything pithy, tight and catchy. The sole fiddle you’ll find turns up in “C’mon.” Otherwise, the songs draw on jazz, gospel, blues, reggae, cabaret, even freak folk. Yet, it never sounds like LBT are stretching for its own sake. The changes sound seamless.
It helps that they balanced their harmonies with a new equanimity. Unlike earlier LBT recordings, which tended to favor Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Roads Schlapman’s voices, here the genders balance evenly. Likewise, the four more often sing in unison, giving the songs tighter focus.
LBT’s latest move mirrors the on-going sonic expansion of Music Row itself, as country’s home base brings in broader, and more current, influences.
Yet, even Nashville’s most worldly cats haven’t created songs like “Miracle,” which has a disco beat and the vampy jazz of a ‘70s song by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. In “Will Power” the flirty guitar hook recalls the camp of Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” while “Work” rumbles through the reggae-pop of Maroon 5.
LBT did hedge their bets some by recently announcing that they’re already working on a more traditional country-pop album with their usual producer, Jay Joyce. But that takes nothing away from the thrill and surprise of the album’s final cut, “The Boat.” Here, the foursome harmonize with the New York flair of prime Manhattan Transfer, over chords which recall the minor-key allure of David Crosby, by way of Fleet Foxes. It’s enough to make you hope “The Boat” becomes a jumping off point for a whole new adventure.
How cool for a mainstream country act to write a song with a Barry White beat and harmonies that recall Jefferson Starship in the mid-’70s.
In a clever twist, LBT created a summer song that doesn’t salute hanging out but, instead, hunkering down.