BY TRICIA DESPRES | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
There eventually comes a point in the career of every music artist when they decide to throw all they have up against a wall — or within a pivotal album — to see what sticks.
Country duo Love and Theft are at that point.
And from the sounds of the duo’s new album “Whiskey on My Breath,” set for release on February 10, this strategy just might work. Revitalized, Stephen Barker-Liles and Eric Gunderson are driving fast and taking chances with a new record that contains “the favorite song they have ever done,” “the best-reviewed song they have ever put out,” and “the most honky-tonk song they have ever recorded.”
LOVE AND THEFT With Joel Crouse When: 9 p.m. Jan. 17 Where: Joe’s Bar, 940 W. Weed St., Chicago Tickets: $16 Info: www.joesbar.com
“We are in a really good place right now,” says Barker-Liles from his wife’s family’s home in the Chicago suburb of Grayslake, where the family was celebrating a late Christmas. “This is our third album and we can do what we want to do. We can make the music we want to make. I mean, we don’t have any electric guitars on this album, ‘ya know?”
Indeed, the duo, who first entered the country music spotlight via a coveted opening slot on the 2008 Taylor Swift tour and a record deal with the Disney-affiliated Carolwood record label that spawned their first Top 10 single “Runaway,” have been kicked around a bit within their relatively young career. Originally a trio that once included fellow singer-songwriter Brian Bandas and memorable hits as the No. 1 country smash “Angel Eyes” the duo has established a rabid fan base eager to take in new music.
“There has been this whole bro-country thing happening with all of these songs that don’t have much meaning and certainly won’t stand the test of the time, even if they get to Number One,” explains Barker-Liles, of “Whiskey On My Breath,”a song that speaks of the struggles of addiction. “We wanted to put out a song that means something and a song that could showcase our vocal harmonies. We wanted to put something out that George Strait would listen to and say ‘now, that’s a good song.”
With Barker-Liles and Gunderson co-producing the new album with longtime studio collaborator Josh Leo, perhaps the most impressive of the cuts are the ones in which the duo takes the biggest chances on, including the powerful and unforgettable “Everybody Drives Drunk.”
“We wanted to make it because of the controversy of the title… we wanted people to judge it before they even listened to it,” Barker-Liles says. “I think it makes the message that much more powerful once they listen to the lyrics. It’s about how everyone makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. I had held onto that title for a while and even brought it up in some co-writes with people and no one really jumped on what I wanted to do with it. But this record gave that song the chance it has deserved.”
Other standout cuts on the new album include “Wrong Baby Wrong,” a 2009 Martina McBride hit written by Barker-Liles, the infectious “Anytime, Anywhere,” and the honky-tonk-infused “Get Drunk and Make Friends.”
“We are not parting from who we are on this record… the root of the production has always been there for us,” says Barker-Liles. “It just sometimes has been overshadowed by what the label has wanted us to put out there. We are able to do what we want now. Now, it’s our decision. It’s our maturing. Now, we are going for it. We have nothing to lose.”
Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.