For a band known for its high-energy live performances and sense of fun, Nashville country-pop crossover, Lady Antebellum, sure know how to write some slow burning albums. Their talent for high-hitting, heart wrenching pop ballads – like 2009’s “Need You Now” – has built them a solid fan base, but the trio decided to leave their comfort zone on the runway and jet off to bluer skies with their latest release, 747.
“The songs that have been the biggest successes have been left-of-centre for us,” said Charles Kelley, explaining the band’s incentive to take a leap of faith with their new album. A new sound is definitely alive and kicking, but let’s keep things in perspective here: 747 is more artistic evolution than radical reinvention. Still, if the stomping beat and ‘tude-soaked vocals of album-opener “Long Stretch of Love” doesn’t alert you to the fact that the band are rocking with brand new energy, album single “Bartender” will seal the deal. Syncopated stabs of guitar from Dave Haywood drive a dangerously svelte verse that explodes into a fist-pumping pop chorus, complete with jangling banjo line (you know, just to make sure it sounds country enough).
After the strong pop-rock flavour of the opening tracks, it comes as a slight surprise to be firmly back in Nashville again with the first straight country track on the album, “Freestyle.” Amidst the funky guitar work, Scott and Kelley deliver quick-fire lyrics and a devil-may-care chorus: “Hey there ain’t nothing wrong /With just making it up as we go along /Find a little rock n’ roll hallelujah…Maybe we can go a little wild and freestyle.” It’s a little bit cliché, a little bit risky and a whole lotta fun – an open confession that perhaps the band don’t quite know what they’re doing yet, but are willing to take the ride to find out.
From here on in it’s much of the same: emotional ballads that run on high octane rather than red wine. Even the gently loping numbers (“Down South”, “She Is”) up the ante with fast moving guitar riffs, distorted electric solos and thumping drumbeats. The overall effect is bittersweet, intense and clean-cut pop-rock – “Damn You Seventeen” is reminiscent of a young Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac.
Perhaps it is the overly-sentimental fillers like the rather ho-hum “Down South,” or the way angst eventually seems to preside where zeal once ruled, but 747 never quite reaches the momentum necessary for total lift-off. For all the punchy choruses, electric guitar solos and relentlessly catchy hooks, Lady A still sound mildly self-conscious at times, adding an element of caution that has no business hanging around. While Scott and Kelley are solid in their vocal deliveries there is a feeling that they never really let loose, and one can only dream of the guitar pyrotechnics that would lift the instrumental breaks to a whole new level. The whole album begs to be heard live and given the final spark of charisma that seems to have been stifled in the studio. Despite the lulls, if 747 is any indicator of the direction Lady A’s songwriting is heading in, there’s never been a better time for fans to be excited about what they’re planning next.