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Little Big Town Floats A New Recording Approach

August 1, 2012

From the opening riff on "Pontoon," it was apparent something was different.

Capitol released Little Big Town's quirky, summery single to radio on April 16, introducing the song-and the band's next album, "Tornado", due Sept.11-with an unusual, Far Eastern-sounding opening instrumental riff that stood out from the pack. "Pontoon" has done well at radio=it's currently at No.9 on Hot Country Songs-but it's fared even better at retail. It's sold more than 600,000 downloads through July 22, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spent two weeks at No. 1 on Country Digital Songs. It marks the first time the band has topped any Billboard chart.

"Pontoon" also made an instant impact on the group's live dates. "It's fun to watch the crowds now," group member Jimi Westbrook says. "As that lick comes in at the top, they're on their feet."

The unusual "Pontoon" hook appropriately symbolizes some of the key tenets at work in recording the "Tornado album. It was developed "in the moment" by mandolin player Jedd Hughes as Little Big Town and producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant) did pre-production on the album, attempting to make it sound as much like a live show as possible. The lick is enhanced by keyboard player Giles Reaves, who doubled Hughes' authentic sounds with a Mellotron sample of a mandolin, building on an atmosphere of experimentation that Little Big Town and Joyce wanted to create.

"We're always wanting to grow and try new things," Westbrook observes. "We were wanting to push ourselves a little bit even more this go-around, push ourselves out of our comfort zone."

The results on "Tornado" are gripping. The four-part harmony of Westbrook, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, and Phillip Sweet remains a central feature of the overall sound. But those vocals are notably more aggressive, and the album takes several surprising twists and turns: trash drum sounds on "Leavin' in Your Eyes," a Sly & the Family Stone groove in "On Fire Tonight" and a calming finale, "Night Owl," that has the group's two male singers channeling The Everly Brothers while the women evince a McGuire Sisters charm.

"The main thing I thought I could bring to this record was, A, I really wanted to rehearse them and {get} that sort of live energy feel, and B, I wanted to get a little bit more counterpoint melodies, like on "Night Owl," Joyce observes. "It's not necessarily just a lead singer and then everybody's singing their four-part harmonies. Let's break it up, let's call-and-answer. There's so many opportunities for counter melodies and more than one thing going on."

The rehearsal-or pre-production- was key. Joyce checked out a Little Big Town concert and was struck by the difference between its live set and its previous albums, which hadn't always captured the intensity of the vocals, in Joyce's estimation. He got the band into his studio before the official recording sessions began so that it could assign vocals, work out those counter-melodies and get the harmonies sorted. It was more complicated puzzle than he expected. "I didn't really realize what it entailed, having four singers instead of doing a traditional record with "the singer", Joyce notes. "There's so many variables with vocal groups, especially four singers as talented as they are. Any one of them could sing lead, which means you've got to change the key and this {part} goes about that one."

Three members of Little Big Town's road band- drummer Seth Rausch, bass player John Thomasson and guitarist Johnny Duke- were employed as a nucleus to provide as much similarity to the band's concerts as possible, with Joyce, Hughes and Reaves filling in on multiple instruments around them. Everyone showed up for sessions at 6p.m., mimicking their schedule on concert days, and the rehearsals gave them enough confidence to enhance the energy in their performances without becoming staid. The vocalists knew every word and note just well enough that the didn't have to think ahead to the next line. That allowed them to stay in the moment and focus on each word and syllable.

"Whenever an instrumentalist or a vocalist knows what they're going to do next, then what they're doing at the moment is going to have so much more free spirit and energy in it," Joyce explains. "If you're slightly apprehensive about what you're doing next, then what you're doing in the moment is going to sound slightly apprehensive. It's very subtle, but there's a spirit to their live singing that once they let go and they quit that right side of the brain, all of a sudden it's just magic because their blend is incredible."

"You felt like you were just holding on," Westbrook recalls. "We didn't know the songs so great that we weren't going to mess up. It was just enough to keep us on the edge."

The bulk of the recording process took place in one short week: four days of pre-production and three days of tracking. And the rehearsals had such an energy about them that many of those performances were picked over the official master sessions when the album was put together.

The marketplace success of "Pontoon" suggests that the approach worked. Between the group's invigorated sound and the song's inherent uniqueness, the public has paid significant attention to Little Big Town.

"It's a smash that defies explanation," radio consultant Joel Raab says. "Some songs just have 'it'. The melody is infectious. I could't get it out of my head after the third listen. The fun video may be inspiring sales, too."

In the meantime, Little Big Town is getting attention through other venues. It supplies a happy, clapping theme song, "Good Afternoon," for the ABC-TV show "Good Afternoon America,"" Where the band is scheduled to make a guest appearance on Aug.2. The quartet is also on the road with Rascal Flatts, Eli Young Band and Edens Edge with an all-band, no-solo-act lineup that's further emphasizing Little Big Town's singular place in country's sonic universe.

"You sit back and watch from the beginning to the end of the show, you go, 'Wow, you can be in a group and there's still that versatility,'" Westbrook says. "there are different things that differentiate you from each other, down to instrumentation and the way you use your vocals."

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