Tuesday, July 17, 2012

album review: 'uncaged' by the zac brown band

Short version: if you're not listening to this album, you should be. The Zac Brown Band have dropped one of the best albums you're going to hear all damn year, and between the great instrumentation, brilliant harmonies, and top-of-the-line songwriting, it's easy to see why. I don't recommend albums that often, but this one earns it. Oh, does it earn it.

Longer version...

My plan today was to review the new Dirty Projectors album Swing Lo Magellan. From everything I've heard about it, it's critically acclaimed by damn near every music critic (you should see Pitchfork salivate over it), and I'm probably going to enjoy it like nothing else. But here's a problem I have with listening to the Dirty Projectors - their genre-defying music can handily be classified as art pieces, and thus I'm going to need more time to relisten to the tracks and get a firm handle on what the hell they're trying to say. Preliminary impressions are good, but I'm going to need more time with it.

So instead, let's talk about country music.

There's a certain class of music critic that ignores country music, or turns his/her nose up at country music, or hates it simply because it's country music (you know who you are). They cite it's not nearly as deep or interesting or musically complex as the music they listen to, or that it's intended for a different demographic (they're basically calling it low-brow, which does a great disservice to country music as a whole). There tends to be a political edge to it as well, particularly in the United States, where country music is the only genre anymore that talks about politics or real life. Certain 'more artistic' music critics (once again, you know exactly who you are) prefer their artistic indie rock or hip hop - blue state music, if you will - while dismissing country as 'red state music', catering to rednecks and the lower class and the less artistically inclined.

Now, anybody who listens to a wide span of country music knows the above opinion is bullshit, and the critic is talking out of his ass, but before once commences with the righteous beatdown, I cannot deny that there is a tiny grain of truth in the non-country critic's opinion, particularly in modern country. Nashville has continued to put out music that does indeed pander to 'red-state' sensibilities, and they won't deny it either. They'll keep pumping out music about God and cars  and farming and family and all that stuff and while there have been some particularly aggregious examples of partisan leanings in certain songs (Jason Aldean's 'Fly Over States', Justin Moore's 'Bait A Hook' and Darryl Worley excruciatingly insulting 'Have You Forgotten' immediately spring to mind), most country music doesn't get all that political most of the time. You're much more likely to find country music promoting certain social values (like 'Beer For My Horses' by Toby Keith and Willie Nelson, or the intolerable 'Just A Kiss' by Lady Antebellum - Lord, I fucking hate that song). 

But let's be fair here: most country music has a lot of the same subjects pop music has these days, and there's more crossover hits these days than there has been since the mid-to-late 90s. I'd have a hard time calling acts like Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, Carrie Underwood, and even acts like Brad Paisley or Dierks Bentley or Jason Aldean true country acts rather than pop acts. But most country music is songs about drinking and love and breakups and partying and girls and boys - you know, all the same subjects you tend to find in pop music. That's not a bad thing, it's just an observation. 

But I've got to be honest here, I don't come to country music looking to listen to pop subjects (with a few exceptions, of course, like Toby Keith's brilliant 'Red Solo Cup'). I come to country music because it's a genre where songwriting becomes absolutely paramount, arguably above instrumentation. You're not going to find a lot of insane instrumental solos or weird experimentation in country music, so what really elevates it and makes it worth listening to is the lyrics and the messages of the songs. And since country music is the only genre that bothers to talk about deeper subjects in an accessible, reasonably straightforward manner, I'm going to keep coming back to country music time and time again.

Let me give you an example. Last year, Ronnie Dunn (formerly of Brooks & Dunn, the country powerhouse duo that was popular throughout the 90s and early 2000s and split in 2010) put out a song called 'Cost of Livin' ', where he talks about unemployment in the USA in stark, unforgiving terms. Go ahead, go to Youtube and look it up. As a song, it's muted, bittersweet, desperate, and incredibly sad, and given as I am currently unemployed, it strikes pretty close to home for me. But even outside of that, the quiet instrumentation and Ronnie Dunn's quavering and very real delivery might have sealed the deal for most, but the uncompromising lyrics and message of desperate hopelessness make it a damn excellent song, albeit pretty damn hard to listen to. I'd easily elevate it above most critically acclaimed indie rock because the song is frighteningly real and in a surprising move, doesn't give a message of hope at the end - because for most people who can empathize with the lyrics in that song, they can't see the way out either.

Songs like that, songs like Reba McIntyre's 'She Thinks His Name Was John', Alan Jackson's 'Where Were You', Mark Wills' 'Wish You Were Here', John Michael Montgomery's 'The Little Girl', Clay Walker's 'A Few Questions', and even Garth Brooks' 'The Dance' - you don't get songs like these on modern pop radio. These are songs with confessional, incredibly potent songwriting that makes country music worth a damn, and elevates it to the level of damn good music than anyone can listen to. It infuriates me when you see people dismiss country when the genre easily has a greater breadth of songwriting than the majority of pop, rock (both mainstream and indie), and hip-hop. Yeah, there's a fair share of bad country music too - nothing's going to redeem shit like 'Honkytonk Badonkadonk' - but there's great country music too, and I wish more critics took the genre seriously.

And on the note of great country music, let's talk about the Zac Brown Band.

The Zac Brown Band, when they first debuted, stuck me with two things. Firstly, they were a band with old-fashioned sensibilities. These were guys who like their acoustic bluegrass guitars and their fiddles and their unbelievably corny songs. Now granted, I have a weakness for cheesiness, but even I have a limit, and the hyper-patriotic bridge in 'Chicken Fried' was nearly the breaking point for me. But the second thing that stuck with me was the presentation, which became one of the reasons I actually liked them. The Zac Brown Band's tendency for old-fashioned melodies and harmonies was delivered with such earnestness that they just felt like a band I could empathize with. It certainly helps matters that they certainly look the part of old-fashioned country stars (as in they look like normal people, in comparison to the far-too-slick airbrushed model style of some modern country artists), and that Zac Brown's delivery is accessible and real. To put in country band terms, they were more Alabama than Lonestar, and that was refreshing in an increasingly more plastic country setting.

And then the band released their second album and the single 'Colder Weather', which I held as the best single from the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts in 2011. And even six and a half months later, I still fucking love that song not just for its soaring melody and great harmonies, but because the song-writing is achingly sad and the instrumentation is sweeping and powerful. There's a real morbid undertone in a surprising amount of Zac Brown Band music, but unlike The Band Perry's infatuation and fantasies about death, the Zac Brown Band tend to address the subject with maturity, sincerity, and genuine emotion. 

Now granted, this band also earned a lot of justified annoyance from me by doing a bunch of 'gulf and western' music - which is basically what Jimmy Buffett does and Kenny Chesney rips off. I have a limited liking for this kind of music - most tends to fall into the genre of 'white guy with acoustic gutiar', a genre I loathe, but the more I listen to the Zac Brown Band's particular version, they do something a bit different than most. In songs like 'Knee Deep' and 'Island Song' (which is off the album I'm reviewing today - yes, I'm getting to it), the Zac Brown Band seem to be drawing their inspiration less from Jimmy Buffett and more a certain pot-smoking Jamaican legend named Bob Marley. And the more I listen to it, the more it makes sense - the Zac Brown Band simply have more to say than acts like Kenny Chesney, even about wasting away in the Caribbean.

And this finally brings us to the Zac Brown Band's newest album, Uncaged, where the Zac Brown Band decided to explore genres adjacent to country with renewed vigour.

And I'm not going to lie here, this album will probably be my album of the year

Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are. There's so much that works on this album that I'm kind of at a loss to even begin (probably why I began with such a long preamble), and I'm struggling to differentiate the things that appeal to me specifically from the things that will appeal to everyone. I mean, who would have thought the band would have grabbed the chintzy organ that I remember most fondly from Deep Purple of all people and incorporate it into their tracks (in fact, I'm fairly certain their title track was inspired by Deep Purple, and that's only a good thing). Combining with the superb harmonies and the masterful instrumentation that draws inspiration from all across the board to the excellent songwriting, even on songs that I thought I'd hate, this album just works for me in ways I can hardly describe. I haven't enjoyed a country album like this in years.

The album begins with 'Jump Right In', which is a gulf-and-western-flavoured song, but it's so damn cheerful and well-harmonized it's impossible to dislike. If I was nitpicking I'd say it's a bit formulaic for the Zac Brown Band to start the album like this, but I can't deny that it works. From there we jump to the country-rock song 'Uncaged', which I will criticize for being a little unstructured, but I can't help but think that might have been part of the point. The song is about breaking loose and going wild, and that theme is mimicked in the wild grinding guitars, fiddles, and organ, and it's hard not to admire that sort of symmetry.

From there, the Zac Brown Band promptly drop into gut-punch range with 'Goodbye In Her Eyes', an absolutely heart-breaking song about a relationship just petering out because the passion's gone, and the deliberation on whether it's worth trying to drag it out or just accept things. It's powerful, incredibly emotional, and ties well back to a theme the Zac Brown Band tend to come back to - the 'journeyman' element of music, that a musician is like a travelling bard, and the strain this lifestyle puts on love is often hard to bear. It's a theme I've seen before in tracks like Alan Jackson's 'The Blues Man', but it's a damn great one, and is directly followed by 'The Wind'. I could criticize this song and say that the lyrics aren't as substantial as the previous track when basically exploring the same theme, but dear fucking God, the juxtaposition of superbly well-played acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and fiddle just works here.

From there we come to 'Island Song', the one I mentioned above. And while I can say the Zac Brown Band draws an excellent parallel to Bob Marley, I will say it lacks the impact of Bob Marley's tunes. Marley always had something deeper to say, with commentary on politics and the world, and the Zac Brown Band don't quite nail it. Don't get me wrong, the song's pretty damn good, but not great. I have a similiar problem with 'Sweet Annie', the next song, which attempts to explore a travelling musician returning to an old girlfriend to settle down, and she's reticent about the idea. And while I will say that the Zac Brown nail the emotional notes pitch perfect and the song-writing is stellar, the chord progressions are a bit too similar to 'Colder Weather' for me, and it feels like a B-side. Once again, good, but not quite great.

But fortunately the next song 'Natural Disaster' is one I can't possibly disagree with - it opens with amazing harmonies, deft and catchy songwriting, and a backing organ. I don't think I'm physically capable of criticizing this song! Now, granted, it's a song about a girl who's a 'natural disaster', which is well-trod ground, but the song is so poundingly awesome and the songwriting is so damn good, I don't think it's possible for me to dislike it. 

The next song, 'Overnight', is easily the most strange song on the album, namely because it sounds a bit like a number Boyz II Men never recorded in the early 90s, complete with minimal backing, incredibly catchy bass, full horn section, and sexual subject matter. And despite the fact that Zac Brown looks like a younger version of Red Green with a bigger beard, the man manages to sound more manly and mature when discussing sex than pretty much every male country artist working today (hell, I'd put him only a notch beneath R. Kelly and Usher - that's how good it is)! I'm kind of at a complete loss how to view this song, because it's so completely different than anything else on the album, but executes so damn well, I can't help but really like it. 

But the Zac Brown Band saved some of their best for last, as they explore their themes of journeymen musicians in strikingly powerful ways to round out the last three songs of the album. And I honestly can't rank them, because they're all fucking amazing. The first is 'Lance's Song', a song about a drummer who gave up a high-powered career to follow his dreams and become a travelling musician who worked in relative anonymity, and then passed away. Fruitless google searches couldn't get me a name for this guy, whether or not he was a real person, but it doesn't matter, because the song is incredible, and so heartbreakingly sad with the bluegrass guitar and fiddle and acapella final chorus. You feel empathy for a guy who followed his dream and never quite made it - it's the storyline of Anvil: the Movie, just infinitely more depressing. And the Zac Brown Band continue their streak of songs about death with 'Day That I Die', which is an exploration of the fulfillment one can achieve with music, even when he passes on and reaches those pearly gates. It's a song about approaching death proud, with one's head held high, having lived and died pursuing the art he loved - it's mature, it's moving, and it's infinitely more meaningful than anything The Band Perry ever wrote.

But to my amazement, the Zac Brown Band circle back to the central theme of the journeyman musician with a powerful country-rock melody called 'Last But Not Least' (cute double-meaning there). But in this song, they talk the girl that Zac Brown loves even throughout the years of travelling and singing, the person he's always held paramount in his heart, the girl to which he's always been faithful, and the one he truly loves. You can hear Zac Brown pushing his voice to the absolute limit over the bridge as he races home to her, the final stretch of his journey. While 'Sweet Annie' was good in this vein, this song is different because Zac Brown and his girl have remained faithful to each other, still loving despite the distance, and the triumphant climax of their reunion is the perfect note with which to end the album.

I've got to be honest, I love this album. The Zac Brown Band's Uncaged is fucking brilliant, and the few criticisms I have over it are minor indeed. It's an album with depth, complexity, and masterful musicianship, exploring deeper themes of the travelling musician and doing so in a way that's insightful, mature, and real. If you're a country fan, you should be listening to this. If you're not a country fan, you still should be listening to this, because this is the cream of the damn crop, and absolute proof that country has something deeper and something special to offer the music community.  

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.  Go buy the Zac Brown Band's Uncaged, you won't regret it.

1 comment:

  1. The Zac Brown Band, when they first debuted, stuck me with two things. Firstly, they were a band with old-fashioned sensibilities. These were guys who like their acoustic bluegrass guitars and their fiddles and their unbelievably corny songs. Great stuff