The vocal quartet Little Big Town has been releasing country-chart-topping albums for 15 years now. But recently its members have been pushing their ambition even further. In 2015, the bruised, sparse single “Girl Crush,” which showcased vocalist Karen Fairchild’s slow-burn envy, soared to No. 1 on the country charts despite (or maybe because of) quick-to-take-offense listeners’ interpreting the lyrics to be about lesbianism. Then last year the group surprise-released Wanderlust, a loose collection of lightly funky songs executive-produced by pop guru Pharrell Williams.
The group’s eighth studio album, The Breaker, splits the difference between country-tinged pop and pop-leaning country, with rich harmonies serving as the constant. The first half of the album soars when it’s at its most restrained. The dreamy “Free” looks back on the simpler, more pleasant days of street hockey and televisions with two channels, while the languorous “Lost in California” is a starlit drive through romantic longing, its gentle guitars soaring in tandem with the group’s coos and oohs.
Bridging the album’s gap is another artist who has used Nashville as a jumping-off point into the wider world of pop: Taylor Swift, who wrote the wounded breakup ballad “Better Man.” The melodies on the chart-topping track’s verses–simple yet infectious–bring to mind earlier Swift compositions, although Fairchild’s husky voice and her bandmates’ harmonies lend the song added gravitas. From there, the group leans into and slightly updates tried-and-true country-music ideals, and that works too. Taken as a whole, it’s the sound of musicians gently testing the boundaries of their genre while remaining true to their roots.
This appears in the February 27, 2017 issue of TIME.
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