For well over a decade now, much of mainstream country music has been using adult contemporary radio circa 1985 as its sonic template, with Rascal Flatts leading the charge as the REO Speedwagon for the new millennium. But the influence of ’80s pop on today’s country has never been as explicit as it is on the new single by Sugarland, who are joined by tourmates Little Big Town and Jake Owen on a cover of the Dream Academy’s one hit, “Life in a Northern Town.” This isn’t a case of transforming a pop song into a country song like Sugarland’s bluegrass rave-up version of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”: Other than Jennifer Nettles’s increasingly hard-to-buy drawl, there’s nothing recognizable as actual country music about the single. From its use of a tinkling electric piano as the lead instrument and the tasteful orchestral swells and heavy percussion that kick in on the chorus, to the fact that the song (originally intended as an elegy for Nick Drake, someone I’d love to hear Owen name one song by) eschews the narrative-driven structure of most country songs and uses a wordless chant as its refrain, it remains a straight-up pop production. And with a nearly note-for-note faithfulness to the original version, the cover should be utterly inessential. And yet, is there any current act in any popular genre who arranges more exquisite harmonies than Little Big Town? The song’s lilting melody and the presence of Sugarland and Owen both give the group the opportunity to build intricate up-to-seven-part harmonies that more than justify releasing the single and that highlight just how well that wordless chant works as a hook. It’s no surprise that it’s taken off at country radio, but “Life in a Northern Town” should give its unique ensemble a real shot at a crossover hit as well.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.