"They say you are who you hang with," Kimberly Schlapman declares on the new album by Little Big Town, and for this coed country group, that's turned out to be a boon.
Once viewed as a kind of lower-wattage version of Lady Antebellum – strummy acoustic guitars, steady soft-rock tempos, creamy male-female vocal harmonies – Little Big Town seemed on the verge of fading to bland two years ago before it hired Jay Joyce, a producer known for his work with rock acts like Cage the Elephant, to oversee its fifth studio album, "Tornado."
Yet Joyce ended up remaking the foursome's sound, going fuzzier and funkier, and in the process he boosted its commercial appeal: "Pontoon," the irresistible "Tornado" single about a laid-back boat ride, topped Billboard's country chart and won a Grammy Award. Hanging with Joyce gave Little Big Town fresh purpose.
Wisely, Schlapman and her bandmates retained the producer for "Pain Killer," and this time he pushed them even further. "Good People," about the importance of the company you keep, rides a fat synth-bass groove, while "Turn the Lights On" mutates from twangy prog-disco to blistering hard rock; "Save Your Sin" is more raucous still, with sheet-metal guitars out of Nine Inch Nails.
Then there's "Stay All Night," a swaggering party tune that feels like a sequel to "Cold One" from the latest album by one of Joyce's other clients, Eric Church.
As freaky as the production gets, Little Big Town's crystalline vocals (and sturdy structures by Nashville's craftiest songwriters) keep the music approachable, even tidy; it's always heading toward a catchy chorus.
And amid all the texture and flash, the singers pause for a pair of stripped-down acoustic ditties: "Silver and Gold" and "Live Forever," about a union "strong enough to stand in the stormy weather." That's a kind of durability Little Big Town knows firsthand.
Little Big Town
3 stars out of 4