For Love and Theft, it’s addition by subtraction. The loss of a record label and a band member resulted in a project that is tighter and more accessible than anything on the group’s 2009 debut album. The best songs on ‘Love and Theft‘ are those that tell simple stories and those that rely on simple melodies. That’s most of the album.

Heavy ballads like ‘Thinking of You and Me’ and ‘She’s Amazing’ feel like syrup on a summer salad. Aside from those two, the self-titled project is as easy to listen to as a baby laughing. The nine remaining cuts borrow from rock, R&B and pop music (especially pop music), but the story telling is pure country.

“No it don’t matter where we go / Just as long as I can hold you close / Kiss your lips / Get you thinking about maybe turning those blue jeans inside out,” Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson sing on the sneaky ‘Inside Out,’ track No. 2, following the current single ‘Angel Eyes.’ Liles wrote the song with Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins. ‘Love and Theft’ the album is overflowing with professional songwriters like Neil Thrasher, Rivers Rutherford and the under-discussed Natalie Hemby.

At times, Love and Theft become country music’s Bruno Mars. ‘Runnin’ Out of Air’ is so infectious that Pfizer may need to invent a vaccine. ‘Real Good Sign’ is also unapologetically pop, but it’s too good for all but the stodgiest of country fans to enjoy. And let’s be honest, those curmudgeons haven’t gotten this far in the review.

Two other songs that deserve mention are naughty-but-so-nice love song ‘Amen’ (available for listen here) and the more humbling ‘Town Drunk.’ Both songs grab your attention after just one listen. After a second spin, you’ll find yourself grabbing someone to share the story with.

So why don’t we give that sweet red dress you wear so well the day off / Can I get an Amen / Every once in awhile / Every now and then / Can I get an Amen,” the men sing on ‘Amen.’ That’s the second great pick-up line in four songs — hopefully someone is taking notes.

Credit RCA for signing a group that wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire as a trio with Lyric Street Records. ‘Love and Theft’ is one of the more pleasant surprises of 2012.