For a “Summer Fever,” this one doesn’t feel all that contagious.
After riding “Better Man” to No. 1, Little Big Town, country music’s ultimate boom-or-bust band, went right back to busting: “Happy People” limped to a #46 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart, and “When Someone Stops Loving You” sputtered out at #37. In response, the group has closed the chapter on The Breaker and released a brand new single “Summer Fever” as the leadoff track from their upcoming ninth studio album. It’s clearly aiming for a lightweight, fun-loving summer vibe, but while there are things to like about this song, I was mostly struck by how not fun it turned out to be.
The production is the main reason this track comes off as uninviting as it does. The instruments are exactly what you’d expect here: A slick electric guitar on the melody, a percussion mixture with an lot of bounce and an island flair, and even a steel guitar floating adding a spacious feel to the background. (Also, although I rarely mention the bass in a song, this one is actually funky enough to occasionally draw your attention.) The tempo provides energy, the instruments provide a nice groove…so what’s the problem? In a word, it’s tone: The instruments feel dark and serious rather than bright and happy, and the track is plagued with minor chords that completely ruin the carefree, relaxed atmosphere the lyrics try to establish. Compared to past LBT songs like “Pontoon” and “Day Drinking,” this song feels surprisingly lifeless, and comes across as a lot less enjoyable than it should be.
This bizarre malaise extends to the vocals as well, as lead singer Karen Fairchild is robbed of her usual power and fails to pass along any good vibes to her audience. Part of this stems from how low the song’s key is set, which forces Fairchild into her lower range and makes her voice thin and raspy, especially on the verses. Things improve slightly as the song progresses (those opening lines on the final chorus are the best part), and having the entire LBT crew back Fairchild on the choruses helps fill out the vocals, but the persistent lack of power and tone drags the entire song down and keeps it from feeling as fun as it should. Fairchild’s certainly got the chops to make a song like this work (again, see LBT’s past work), and pulling her back instead of letting her unleash her full power was a major misstep.
The lyrics, like the instruments, are exactly what you would expect: A gallery of stock summer imagery (beaches, mixtapes, topless cars) as the narrator and their significant other catch “summer fever.” It’s not clever and original (heck, it’s not even the first song with this title), but it’s not intended to be: This is a light, fluffy track meant to capture the sunny summer vibes of the next few months, and then be completely forgotten by October. It’s a time-honored trope that’s worked to great effect in the past, but it requires the cooperation of the production and artists to reach its full potential. (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the gold standard this year is actually Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key.”) With the sound and singers working at cross-purposes with the lyrics, however, the result is an uninteresting, uninviting track that’ll be forgotten by July, let alone October.
“Summer Fever” didn’t have to be this mediocre. Brighten up the production and turn Little Big Town loose on the vocals, and this could have at least merited a mention alongside the group’s other breezy summer anthems. As it is, it’s just another “meh” song on the radio, and it’s taking up space in between tracks that are actually engaging and fun. LBT may have hoped to start a pandemic with this fever, but I’m afraid the genre is already vaccinated against it.
Rating: 5/10. It’s more “bust” than “boom.”