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Review: Little Big Town Are a Room That Could Use a Roof on ‘Wanderlust’

6
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: June 10, 2016
Label: Capitol Nashville

The bravely titled “One Dance,” which opens Little Big Town’s Wanderlust, is exactly what you’d expect from a collaboration between the pop-friendly country pros of “Girl Crush” and “Day Drinking” fame and pop Ozymandias Pharrell. Mr. Williams deploys LBT’s four-clovered, guys’n’gals personality and trademark harmonies as vibrant new weapons in a heavy studio arsenal that didn’t need further proving. There’s throwback rhythm guitar, club-ready bass lines, and even a little “Everybody get up!” interfection transmitted from “Blurred Lines.” It’s a successful template — and, true to the title, the rest of this eight-song, 26-minute glorified EP abandons it, becoming more ambitious (and probably a little less successful) than if the Pharrell/Little Big Town summit meeting had been content to just stay in the pocket.

Instead of borrowing from the best of each other, this odd couple embarks together for stylistic parts unknown. It’s like somebody spiked the rum punch on the pontoon and everyone eventually made it home without regrets. The lead single, “One of These Days” has a sunny, spacey flower-child vibe underscored by a “Hey all my sisters and brothers / I see a new beginning” refrain. “Miracle” jumps ahead a decade to evoke the symphonic soul of the disco era (before an electrobeat hoedown outro, natch), with Little Big Town morphing into Love Unlimited Orchestra, though this quartet could use a Barry White bass.

“C’mon,” with a country-curious Justin Timberlake supplying a vocal, is the most Southern-sounding thing here, less Nashville-meets-L.A. than a different Tennessee-goes-West hybrid, evoking the glitzy swamp-gospel of post-comeback Elvis more than anything else. The male-female call-and-response enjoys a good drawl (“You hear me talking around the house / C’mon, you know you love to hear my mouth”) but still casts a vote for a little less conversation, a little more action, please.

The diptych of “Work” and “Skinny Dippin’” at the center plays with the hypothetical notion of calypso-and-western. The former has a dusty little movie-saloon gallop beneath its skanking groove and chanted chorus, while the latter steps lighter with steel-drum percussion for the album’s most honeyed singing. But the closer, “The Boat,” is where you’ll need to step off. The prog/jazz vocal arrangements evoke an unholy alliance between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Manhattan Transfer, while the serious tone just can’t be. Maybe there’s a showpiece cameo in Pitch Perfect 3 we haven’t heard about yet.

As bats**t detours by (semi-)major figures go, Wanderlust isn’t exactly Metal Machine Music or The Life of Chris Gaines. It’s too slight for that; maybe Little Big Town are, too. But as deliberate country-crossover experiments go, this one is more fetching than Nelly and Tim McGraw (and let’s never again speak of LL Cool J and Brad Paisley). If it was designed as a purchase on each other’s market shares, it doesn’t feel strategic. Its experimentation seems honest and musically curious, mostly lacking in the kind of desperation that’s all too common when Nashville artists court the world beyond the Music Row maze.

But it also doesn’t sound like anybody’s future, not with this lack of legible songcraft or any vocal showcase for first-among-equals Karen Fairchild. After the Grammy-recognized depth-charge of “Girl Crush,” it’s just a fun little (day-drinking?) tangent between their surefire Jay Joyce-produced destinations. But that doesn’t mean plenty of country-pop purists won’t hate its blurred lines.