Like most everybody, I love it when my basic beliefs are confirmed by experience. I love it even more when confirming those beliefs show up my biases and prejudices as just what they are – worthless biases and prejudices. I don’t much care for country music, in fact I’ve been known to get up and leave to avoid having to listen to it. But I also believe that having an open mind and open ears is fundamentally important. So, periodically I pick up a well-thought-of album in a genre I don’t typically enjoy and try and listen to it with open ears. I heard a song by Little Big Town, liked it, looked into the band, found out they are marketed as a county band, and decided to test my open ears practice with their first album, The Road to Here. Smart move. Open ears are good, bias is not.
Little Big Town are four singer-songwriters Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook who do two things exceptionally well – write songs and sing them.
The first thing that will strike you when you hear The Road to Here are the vocals. Each member of the group can sing, their voices work beautifully together, and The Road to Here is built from the ground up on their ensemble singing. Little Big Town is vocal group first and a collection of individual singers second. Moreover, they emphasize harmony vocal charts rather than unison singing (everybody sings the same note). It’s hard to write a good song with a strong vocal lead. It’s a lot harder to write a song with four intertwining vocal parts. Little Big Town hit it time and time again. “Boondocks” has the kind of lyrics that embarrass sophisticates who turn their nose up at this kind of music but the vocal harmonies are so exquisite and the hooks are so strong that the song is irresistible. And if that isn’t enough they sing a break down and then launch into a four way round for the out choruses. “A Little More You” has what first appears to be a standard lead vocal playing off a choral background until the chorus turns the word “you” into an eight note riff every fourth measure. It’s a jaw-dropper.
Little Big Town’s exceptional vocal skills are matched by their songwriting. Not only can they write killer quartet vocal charts they have a pronounced ability to fit the words to the rhythm and melody lines. They know when to stretch a word and when to hit it short and sharp so that melody, rhythm and lyrics come across as a smooth and seamless whole. When this is done well the result sounds effortlessly natural and deceptively simple. It’s not.
If I have one complaint about The Road to Here it lies in the way the album was mixed. With one exception, the vocals on all of the tracks on the album are mixed tight. This strategy works because the voices are so tightly meshed. However one track, “Bones”, was mixed by a different engineer and he used closer miking and gave each individual vocal more space in the mix. The exceptional communication these four singers have with each other isn’t lost but the individual harmony parts are sharpened. It’s a small thing but I would have enjoyed hearing more of the album mixed this way.
Before the internet allowed bands with little experience actually playing together to become overnight sensations, first albums were often career highlights because the band had perfected the songs through long practice and many live performances. The Road to Here has this sound of songs that have been refined and buffed to perfection. If you like vocal harmony, listen to this album. It’s terrific. Recommended.
“A Little More You”