I’ve been living with Little Big Town’s Pain Killer for a couple of weeks now, and I still can’t make up my mind about it. Some critics have written about this as a ‘breakthrough’ for the country vocal harmonists, but, for me, that breakthrough was some time ago. I particularly liked 2012’s Tornado, and I’d even go back to 2010 and The Reason Why for a record that establishes them as a top drawer act. Nobody who has seen them live could put them anywhere else. Vocal harmonies like theirs, performed live, with none of the limitations of recording technologies, are incredible. Songs like “Shut Up Train” from The Reason Why, and “Sober” or “Leaving’ in Your Eyes” from Tornado stick with you in a big way.
The group has always shown strong influence from 70s Fleetwood Mac, regularly covering Rumours-era songs in their live set. They’ve also released a live set with Lindsay Buckingham. All of which is a reminder that they have a 70s rock vibe, which means it should be no surprise that there is a lot of rocking out on Pain Killer.
From the opening track, “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” the sound is hard, aggressive rock, more Rolling Stones than Fleetwood Mac. It’s not horrible, but it does sound as if LBT have swallowed the Loudness Wars Kool-Aid. Next up, the summer single “Day Drinking” has hard-struck mandolin on it (think Steve Earle rather than Earl Scruggs), and sets aside subtle harmonising for a crowd-pleasing shout-along. My daughter loved this particular track, but I saw it as an example of pandering to the current country scene’s worst instincts. (Which, in case you haven’t been paying attention consist of girls in tight blue jeans/shorts, beer, and trucks.)
So after two loud, harsh numbers, “Tumble and Fall” is a relief: the first male lead on the album, and melody is back. This is the Little Big Town sound. A certain mellowness, and male and female voices working beautifully together.
In the important 4th position, the title track, and we’re back in Rolling Stones territory, only this time it’s one of their cod-reggae numbers. Think “Send it to Me” on Emotional Rescue.
So. Nothing horrible so far, but just one track that I would file under the Little Big Town sound, award five stars, and keep on my permanent cycling playlist. So far, I’d barely rate this album as average.
And then comes “Girl Crush”. You can see a live version of it at the top of this post. I’ll wait.
Now, this Karen Fairchild lead vocal to me is a match for “Shut Up Train”. It’s simple, but packs a powerful punch. There’s nothing original here in terms of musical arrangement or melody, but the combination of arpeggio guitar, hammond organ and the fabulous vocals make this an instant take-your-breath-away classic.
“Faster Gun” gun takes us back to a harder sound, and “Good People”, sung by Kimberly Schlapman is another crowd singalong, with some nice lap steel guitar. Could be Ronnie Wood playing it. “Stay All Night” is another bluesy drinking song (Jimi Westbrook? I’m not very good at guessing the lead vocals). The performance here wins me over, I think.
“Save Your Sin” opens like a number from the third side of Exile on Main Street, with a loud guitar riff, but then breaks down to a Schlapman lead vocal, which is a bit too shouty.
“Live Forever” is another mellow LBT-style song, with nice harmonies and acoustic guitars. “Things You Don’t Think About” is Karen Fairchild vocal that starts against a stark kick-snare backdrop. I don’t think this one develops enough, and keeps returning to this opening sound. “Turn the Lights On” has an introduction that is pure Fleetwood Mac (think the first half of “The Chain”), so much so that you don’t hear a vocal until over 90 seconds into the track. It then finishes with an electric guitar solo and ensemble singing that recalls, um, the second half of “The Chain”.
The album finishes on a Little Big Town note with the sweet harmonies against acoustic guitar of “Silver and Gold”. It’s a good finish.
Where does that leave us? “Girl Crush” is an essential download, and I suspect much of the rest of the album, including the hard rock numbers, will grow on me. At the moment, though, I’m wedded to the more mellow-sounding tracks, and I think, overall, that it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole. I’ve read that for this record they did a lot of separate songwriting sessions, and I think it really shows. Very few people are going to listen in sequence, of course, and maybe that will be its saving grace. When I listen to it as an album, there’s too much relief when you get a break from the harsher sounds.