Tuesday, April 28, 2015

album review: 'jekyll + hyde' by the zac brown band

If you were to ask me what my most anticipated album of 2015 was... well, depending on the day I would have given you a number of answers. Depending on the genre I would have given you a number of answers, but I was getting asked about country, it wouldn't have even been a challenge. And for me, it's always a little odd admitting things like this, because it sets expectations for this review and immediately there'll be accusations of bias or some silliness like that. Let me say that my critical faculties are not impaired, and I'm not going to give something a pass just because I'm a fan - my Nightwish review was proof of that.

That said... the Zac Brown Band is probably one of my favourite country bands ever. The project of singer-songwriter Zac Brown and a killer selection of multi-instrumentalists and backing singers, it was a band that started small with The Foundation in 2008, and while I liked that album for its singles and a couple lightweight deep cuts, it wasn't until their 2010 record You Get What You Give that they seriously won me over. Not only was this a band that knew their neotraditional country and had a gift for killer melodies and great texture, but they were also strong songwriters that could sketch great pictures and had the talent to work with the greats like Alan Jackson. And with songs like 'Colder Weather' - which I should remind you all was my pick for the best hit song of 2011 - they proved that the success of 'Chicken Fried' or 'Toes' wasn't going to confine them to lightweight beach fodder.

But while You Get What You Give was a damn solid record, 2012's Uncaged was damn near a masterpiece. No joke, if I were to make a list of my top records of 2012, it'd be fighting with Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean for the top slot. Not only was the writing even better, it showed the band getting more experimental, fusing elements of reggae, bluegrass, rock, and even R&B into their music - and what was all the more amazing is that they made it feel cohesive and powerful with songs like 'Goodbye In Her Eyes', 'Natural Disaster', and 'Last But Not Least' standing as some of their best ever.

And then things really got interesting. They put out an EP with Dave Grohl, Zac Brown later showed up on one of the best songs of the Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways, and with an upcoming collaboration from Chris Cornell on their newest record Jekyll + Hyde - along with Sara Bareilles of all people - it looked as though the Zac Brown Band were continuing their experimentation. What worried me, though, was the producer: Jay Joyce, who in recent years has developed a bad reputation for overproduction and turning albums that could have been amazing or at least passable from Eric Church, Little Big Town, and Halestorm into complete messes. And I'll admit, I was worried here: I knew Zac Brown had a reputation for a tight grip in the studio, but swapping out Keith Stegall, known for working with Alan Jackson, for Joyce struck me as a monumentally bad decision, especially considering they were already working with Grohl! But even putting that aside, I hoped for the best: did the Zac Brown Band manage to pull something together?


Well, they made something, that's for damn sure - and honestly, I'm at a loss of where to even start with this, because while Jekyll + Hyde is many things, pure straightforward country music sure as hell isn't one of them. Sure, we get snippets of it, but we also get a whirlwind of filthy snarled southern rock, gleaming disco-inspired pop country, laid-back swing, folk pipes, reggae, gospel, and even electronica! And in this case, I don't think I can entirely blame Jay Joyce for this - I'll get to the production in a few minutes - but you wouldn't be able to concoct a warped, genre-bending album like this if the band didn't buy into it. So is it any good? Well, pieces of it work - and let me stress this, they do work for what they're trying to do, even if it's not country - but that's just it, pieces, because overall cohesion was pitched out of the window with Jekyll + Hyde, and as much as I loved moments of it, as a whole it doesn't really come together.

So let's talk about the few elements that do feel consistent, and the biggest is the piece that's always made the Zac Brown Band stand out: the vocal harmonies. Zac Brown on his own is a potent singer who has tremendous emotive charisma and great vocal texture - and he pushes himself to the absolute limit on this record - but what makes the Zac Brown Band stand out is the band themselves, pulling together huge soaring choruses and trickier arrangements to drive a more organic loud-soft dynamic. This record does something similar, with the biggest changes coming in the usage of more vocal production to add rougher edges or add more reverb... and honestly, it's a mixed blessing. Sure, the gospel and soul backing choruses were fantastic choices, but Zac Brown is plenty capable of conveying raw emotion without gritty filters or the hollow reverb tone that was used on most of 'Bittersweet'. It's the same thing Jay Joyce did on 'Wrecking Ball' for Eric Church, and it completely kills the intimate vibe of the song. And then there's the opener 'Beautiful Drug' with the spacier filters and distinctly pop sound, and it ties into the one thing Zac Brown isn't nearly as good at: being smooth or cool. The track reminds me of how U2 opened their 1997 album Pop, and like it or not, 'Beautiful Drug' is no way near as good as 'Discotheque'. Want more examples? The languid, mid-tempo adult contemporary track 'One Day' or the horn-satured swing duet with Sara Bareilles 'Mango Tree' that's destined to be added to every Caribbean resort or cruise playlist ever. It's just an odd fit for his voice, and Sara Bareilles is equally ill-suited to it - her voice is too willowy to pull off sultry, although she does put forward an impressive effort.

And if we're looking for an area where things haven't changed much, I'd point to the songwriting too, oddly enough. Zac Brown has always been a strong technical writer from the standpoint of structuring his lyrics and maintaining a good flow, but without the potent thematic undercurrent of Uncaged or more expansive storytelling of his best material, he tends to fall into cliche. Take 'Castaway', the seemingly requisite island-inspired song at this point, and not even the only one on this album... the thing is that this point the band has written almost a half dozen of these songs and 'Toes' is probably still the high water mark because it told a story that stood out. 'Homegrown' is a damn good song, but it's hard not to notice that it's basically 'Chicken Fried' Mark Two. And hell, the first two tracks are practically pop-country love songs that nail the basics very well, but barely go beyond them. Where things actually get interesting is when Zac Brown tries to tell more of a story, like on the heartbreaking 'Bittersweet' in dealing with an upcoming death, or the shockingly visceral 'Junkyard' which tells a story of domestic abuse and a son killing his father to save his mother in the worst of conditions. Then there's 'Remedy', which seems to be following in the recent country tradition of making free-love, 'all religions are cool' tracks - until you realize Sturgill Simpson wrote 'Turtles All The Way Down' last year that had a more fascinating take on faith of all kinds. And speaking of indie country acts, I'd be remiss not to mention 'Dress Blues', one of the few outright country tracks that touches on how people in the American South aren't always prepared to deal with the realities of what wartime loss really means in their 'normal' world. Now this is a Jason Isbell cover and does feature some controversy for a lyrical shift from 'fight somebody's Hollywood war' to 'fight somebody's godawful war'... and honestly, I think I like this wording more, especially considering how much the song emphasizes faith everywhere and how much religion got dragged into the warlike rhetoric surrounding the War on Terror - hits a little harder for me,  even if I definitely prefer Isbell's more stripped-back arrangement.

Now all of these scattered songs don't really seem to have much thematic connection, and it's clear the band knows this - the title Jekyll & Hyde of the record is a study in contrasts, and they even address the choice to go in controversial directions on 'Heavy Is The Head', one of the more fascinating and abstract tracks that features some pretty damn solid symbolism. But at this point we can't stall any longer and we need to talk about the instrumentation and production. And here's my first point: you can't blame Jay Joyce for all of this, because most of the clumsy hallmarks of his sound are not really present here. The melodies are not being lost behind thicker grooves, the tracks don't feel too lumbering or slow, and while there is more synthetic production, I'd argue Zac Brown's deft touch keeps much of it from becoming that overbearing. I do wish there was more steel guitar to emphasize that country sound and smooth over the rough edges, but I'm not surprised it's not here - the Zac Brown Band have always had more of a jam band focus, which is one of the reasons there are so many tempo changes and instrumental shift-ups across this album, to say nothing of the solos. If anything, I'm reminded more of the experimental phase of an act like Pearl Jam in the mid-to-late 90s - keeping most of the fundamentals of their sound but not afraid to bend and cross genres. I think a lot of listeners will be put off by the lack of pure country on this record - and hell, to some extent I am too, because in the majority of cases the more country tracks like 'Homegrown' and 'Bittersweet' and 'Dress Blues' are the most consistent - but if you're willing to accept the Zac Brown Band trying new sounds, how well do they execute them?

Honestly, I'd argue they make it work more often than they don't. There are drum machines and synthesizers, but the tones are lightweight enough that they never overtake the track or , especially when organic drums are brought in. The vocal harmonies and fiddles and acoustic grooves do a lot to smooth out the rough or stuttered edges... unless, of course, you want that edge, like on 'Heavy Is The Head' and 'Junkyard', both of which were pretty damn solid and were only weakened by Joyce's layers on the vocals. But beyond that, 'Loving You Easy' is an outright retro-disco tune, and while I wish the bass had a little more presence, I'd argue the Zac Brown Band does this sound better than Maroon 5 has done on the past two albums! The introduction of bagpipes, fiddles, gospel vocals, and even African drums on 'Remedy' fit together shockingly well... hell, I wish the varied percussion came in earlier on the song to replace that opening beat stutter! And then there's the real controversy with 'Tomorrow Never Comes', a song that wouldn't be out of place on Avicii's debut... but in a hilarious twist, I'd argue Zac Brown has a better grip on balancing electronica with folk country than the other way around. Yeah, I know it's practically heresy, but even though the band hedged their bets by placing an acoustic cover of the song at the end of the album, both versions are pretty damn great. Hell, imagine that track remixed by Lindsey Stirling and you'd have the next version of 'Roundtable Rival', which was one of my favourite songs of 2014! Honestly, where this album stumbles is in redundancy and filler tracks that don't need to be here. The swing track silliness of 'Mango Tree', the not-interesting pop-country 'Young And Wild' and 'Beautiful Drug', the adult-contemporary snoozer 'One Day' that should have been given to Blake Shelton... hell, cut back four or five tracks and this could have been a lot more punchy! As it is... even though it never loses my interest or attention, it does run long.

So as a whole, Jekyll + Hyde will be a divisive record this year, and the response of a lot of country critics has been pretty divided. Hell, I expect a lot of fans to have no idea what to do with this. And here's the frustrating part: there are fantastic moments on this record that'll match some of the best of this year, but as a whole, I can't help but feel that the Zac Brown Band could have put together a more cohesive record with all of this experimentation than they did while maintaining more of that country flavour which they did so well. And I'll be blunt - for as much as the band has pushed their instrumentation, their lyrics haven't kept up, with the best written song on the album not coming from the band. And while there will be many who say the Zac Brown Band spread themselves too thin and are trying to cash in on as many markets as possible with the wild changes in sound - and let's be real, they are - you can still get good music out of it beyond the definition of country either through rock or pop, and I'd argue this album does that. For me, it's a light 7/10 and a recommendation... but a qualified one. It is a step down from Uncaged and You Get What You Give, and if you go in expecting a cohesive, down-to-earth, straightforward country album, you're not going to get that. Instead, you get a fascinating, more experimental record that does show Zac Brown shooting for whatever will stick - let's just hope he doesn't forget his roots and amps up the storytelling next time around.

2 comments:

  1. Great review, Mark. You really are one the finest critics out there, and you did a great job sorting through this mess. I personally didn't care for this album at all, especially considering that I loved Uncaged for how cohesive at was, but I can at least try to respect the band for wanting to shake things up. Unfortunately, like Little Big Town and Eric Church before them, I don't think they needed to. It's telling that the best song on this album is the only one not written by the band.

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  2. you suck! Jekll and Hyde was supposed to be all over the place, it shows their extreme talent!

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