Little Big Town’s sophomore effort, 2005’s The Road to Here, foregrounded the band’s unconventional line-up—Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Roads Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet all trade-off on lead vocal duties and arrange distinctive four-part harmonies, resulting in frequent comparisons to Fleetwood Mac—and standout singles like “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” highlighted co-writer, co-producer, and multi-instrumentalist Wayne Kirkpatrick’s keen commercial instincts. The result was a platinum certification, an ACM award, and a couple of Grammy nominations. Their follow-up, A Place to Land, wisely stays the course while displaying more consistency and focus beyond its obvious choices for singles than its predecessor.
From a production standpoint, A Place to Land draws heavily from the late-‘70s roots-rock sound of acts like CSN&Y and Linda Ronstadt, incorporating occasional flourishes of acoustic country instruments into a style that emphasizes electric guitars and memorable pop hooks. In that regard, Little Big Town is perhaps the best example of how modern country has embraced the sound of the Eagles. Given their emphasis on vocal harmonies, it’s a stylistic decision that suits the group well, and every track on the record works as a showcase for their inspired vocal arrangements. It’s those harmonies that actually carry the album in its weaker moments: Lead single “I’m with the Band,” for instance, is a rather pedestrian life-on-the-road tale, but the group’s exceptional use of a four-part lead vocal gives the song a level of structural sophistication not often found in mainstream country singles.
While there’s nothing as inspired as “Boondocks,” the closest anyone in Nashville has come to replicating the anthemic production and hooks of Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” the material here is solid. “Fury” approaches the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” trope from a fresh angle and gives the band a chance to cut loose, while “Lonely Enough,” on which Fairchild gives a devastating vocal turn, is a compelling, frustrated plea for reprieve. At worst, a few of the songs are over-written: “Fine Line,” which sounds suspiciously like Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” stumbles over adverb-happy lines like, “Completely complacent/So decidedly vacant/I keep waiting for something to give/But that something is always me,” and the measured, empathetic take on emotional abuse, “Evangeline,” undermines a strong hook with a ridiculous line straight out of a self-help seminar (“Your denial is bolstered by your dreams”).
“Vapor” and the treacly “To Know Love” show a similar lack of polish in their songwriting, but they do fit comfortably in a collection of songs about the struggle to remain grounded. On its own, that kind of focus isn’t enough to make A Place to Land a great artistic leap forward for Little Big Town, but it does illustrate growth and an encouraging attention to craft, and it’s certainly good enough to maintain their commercial and critical momentum. That A Place to Land plays to their strengths—their performances and distinctive style—makes the album a success, though, and it suggests that Little Big Town is perhaps the only currently popular band in mainstream country worth following.