On their fifth album, Tornado, Little Big Town makes a shameless bid for the mainstream success that has unjustly eluded them for the better part of a decade. It seems to have worked: With “Pontoon,” the set’s ingratiating earworm of a lead single, the band is responsible for country radio’s inescapable summer anthem, which has even spawned its own “Call Me Maybe”-style karaoke video from a slew of country’s A-list stars. Since “Pontoon” isn’t even close to being the album’s catchiest, best-written, or most creatively produced track, Tornado has the potential to keep Little Big Town’s momentum going long after they’ve docked their motorboats at summer’s end.
That at least three quarters of the songs on Tornado sound like viable radio singles is a credit to the group’s collaboration with producer Jay Joyce, fresh off his star-making turn at the helm of Eric Church’s Chief. Joyce consistently takes risks that make individual tracks sound distinctive while highlighting the songs’ massive hooks and Little Big Town’s powerhouse vocal turns. The high-tuned, double-tracked guitar figure that runs throughout “Pontoon” plays off a sinewy, sultry rhythm track, and the phase shifting on the title track’s electric guitars cleverly mimics a host of different wind instruments. The drumline on raucous opener “Pavement Ends” sounds like it was made by banging on a bunch of metal trash cans, and, while many contemporary country producers are quick to bury their genre signifiers, Joyce actually foregrounds an impossibly catchy banjo riff in an arrangement that couches its standout hooks in some aggressive, shit-kicking Southern rock.
The overall rock-leaning vibe of Tornado, however, isn’t likely to win over many staunch traditionalists. Joyce is mindful of country-music conventions when they’re in service to the song, as with the mournful pedal steel on the sparsely produced “Your Side of the Bed” and the lack of percussion on “Can’t Go Back,” but he also recognizes that Little Big Town’s influences are more diverse. With an arrangement that includes only an acoustic guitar, vibraphones, and the quartet’s heavily reverbed call-and-response vocal tracks, the gorgeous “Night Owl” recalls the Mamas & the Papas at their most sublime. Little Big Town has always drawn comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, but the heaviness of the blues riffs on “Self Made” and standout “Front Porch Thing” owe more to early-period Mac than to the Rumours era that figured so prominently in the band’s previous work.
Like much of contemporary country, the album skews heavily toward rock, but Joyce and Little Big Town display a broader range of—and consistently better taste in—rock influences than acts like Brantley Gilbert or Lady Antebellum, and they incorporate those influences into an aesthetic that’s distinctive and self-aware. Little Big Town knows they’re famous for their unrivaled vocal harmonies, and Tornado gives them ample opportunity to showcase them. Each member of the group gets a couple of lead vocal turns, while “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “Can’t Go Back” all include a cappella sections that place the group’s intricate harmony arrangements front and center.
That they’re singing material that’s worthy of their vocal skills further elevates Tornado above their previous efforts. The group has simply never sounded more stunning than they do on during the lilting, wistful refrain of “Sober,” a co-write by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsay, and Liz Rose. The title track puts an effective first-person spin on its central metaphor between a violent storm and a woman out for revenge, while the doomed relationships of “Your Side of the Bed,” “Leaving in Your Eyes,” and “Can’t Go Back” are all drawn in authentic, believable details.
Unfortunately, it’s on uptempo numbers like “Front Porch Thing” and “On Fire Tonight” that the album’s one significant liability becomes apparent. Tornado is as terribly engineered an album as has ever come out of Nashville, a perfect example of how loudness-war recording techniques can make even the best albums hard to listen to. The audio compression on “Self Made,” “Pavement Ends,” and “On Fire Tonight” doesn’t just neuter the full range of tones of the in-the-red electric guitars, but it even gives Little Big Town’s vocal performances a clipped, tinny quality, which is indefensible for technicians working with four of the finest singers in country music. Still, if overly loud albums like Chief and Miranda Lambert’s Revolution are any indication, piss-poor engineering shouldn’t keep Tornado from giving Little Big Town their long overdue, richly deserved breakthrough.