Jimi Westbrook’s wife Karen Fairchild has a Girl Crush, and Westbrook likes it.
The couple, one-half of country music’s Grammy- and CMA-winning foursome Little Big Town, drop Pain Killer, the group’s sixth and most aggressively confident album, on Tuesday.
The follow-up to 2012’s Tornado, which earned the long overdue band its first No. 1 single (Pontoon), industry awards, appearances on The Voice and Saturday’s induction into the Grand Ole Opry, is equally radio-ready with an in-your-face production style. But the performances are more raw, more daring — and more memorable.
Pain Killer’s centerpiece, Girl Crush, is a sparse, almost ’50s-sounding melody with the group’s glorious male-female harmonies caressing a lyric of unrequited love.
Never miss a local story.
The happily married Fairchild sings lead, and her anguished cry, “I gotta girl crush, hate to admit it but...,” isn’t any horn-dog guy’s Penthouse magazine fantasy. Westbrook chuckles about the song on the phone from Nashville.
“I was blown away the first time I heard that,” Westbrook said. “I haven’t had a song surprise me like that in a long time. It’s hard to come up with an original twist on something you’ve not heard. When it turns at the hook it makes my hair stand up, and that vocal performance by Karen is incredible.”
The twist, when it comes, is millennial, hot and provocative.
I wanna taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you … I want her magic touch/Yeah, ’cause maybe then, you’d want me just as much/I gotta girl crush.
Fine songs are old hat for Little Big Town, and the group had visited country’s Top 10 with Boondocks, Bring It On Home and Little White Church. But the industry didn’t embrace the musicians fully until the more commercial Pontoon. The preceding The Reason Why album in 2010 sold 150,000 copies. Tornado topped 1 million.
“For whatever reason, Pontoon struck a chord with people that gave us attention,” Westbrook said. “Maybe then people saw the rest of what was there.”
Pain Killer also has its commercial nods to radio — the opener Quit Breaking Up With Me is even sung in a Taylor Swift sort of sassy lilt — but the 13-song album’s bold arrangements and variety, vocally and musically, are more challenging than Tornado’s mainstream polish and proved more difficult to capture in the studio.
“On the past two records there’s this reckless abandon from us. We turned off all the voices in our heads that may have existed and just went in and made music we love,” said Westbrook. “When we finished Tornado we had new confidence. We took that further on this new record but this was a harder process.”
Tornado’s vocals took about a week to record. Pain Killer, he said, “was much more laborious, and we had to fight with it a little bit. It’s a little more intense.” Returning producer Jay Joyce joked in the studio that the band felt “unleashed.”
In early October, Reba McEntire surprised Little Big Town on the Opry stage when she wandered out singing Pontoon’s hook before inviting the members to one of country music’s biggest honors (inductees also include vocalists Kimberly Schlapman and Phillip Sweet).
“Opry was such an emotional moment,” said Westbrook who, with Fairchild, is a parent to 4-year-old son, Elijah Dylan. “When you walk into that building you feel all that history.”
For Westbrook, the honor brought to mind his late father and his family in Alabama who all grew up with the Opry on the radio. “That means the most out of everything and speaks to my childhood and to my family’s and parents’ childhoods. It’s a tradition that needs to be sacred, and we appreciated it.”
Follow@HowardCohen on Twitter.