Wednesday, September 25, 2019

album review: 'the owl' by zac brown band

When you think of the Zac Brown Band, what do you think of?

Mostly likely you think of the band responsible for songs like 'Chicken Fried' or 'Toes' or 'Knee Deep', lightweight, relaxing fodder that has a bit of a jam band vibe but a lot of rich, warm harmonies and colour. If you're more of a fan you probably remember songs like 'Goodbye In Her Eyes' and 'Colder Weather' and how the band has always had an underrated strength for ballads, or even how their 2012 album Uncaged took a willingness to experiment into one of the best mainstream country albums of the decade. 

If you're deeper in the country scene, however, especially recently, you might know the Zac Brown Band a little differently. You might know that frontman Zac Brown has been chafing at what he might view as the arbitrary restrictions of country - seemingly unaware of how the indie scene has been plumbing new depths and sounds every single year, which you'd think he'd know given his collaboration with Dave Cobb in 2016, but that's a different story. You might have heard that the same year he put out a back to basics album Welcome Home produced by Dave Cobb, he also made an EDM-folktronica... thing called Sir Rosevelt near the end of that year... which wound up being universally panned by anyone who knows electronic music as dated, badly produced, and while having catchy moments feeling more than ever like a vanity project. And that's what we were hoping would remain the case for the Zac Brown Band, especially after their dabblings with electronic music on 2015's Jekyll + Hyde, which for the record did see some success, but nowhere near consistent enough to sustain a full project - so if Zac Brown had a side project to shove that sound into, all fine and good.

What nobody was suspecting was The Owl, a project where it appeared that Zac Brown was doubling down on the electronics and pop flourishes to the shock and alienation of all of their country fans - and let me make this clear, the buzz has been horrible for this album. Even mainstream critics are not giving this a pass, so as one of the few guys who can defend pieces of Zac Brown's electronic forays, I wanted to give this a chance... so what did The Owl deliver? know, even being ready for this to be bad, I had hope. I liked cuts the last time Zac Brown tried to go electronic and blend it with country, I've been forgiving of his genre-bending in the past. I even get why it might be a logical decision on Zac Brown's part, given how Welcome Home didn't really land the hits playing to the neotraditional sound and maybe he thought the pop direction was the best direction. And I can even hear some of the defenses, probably analogous to what was said about Eric Church's The Outsiders in 2014 - it's experimental, it's pushing the sound, it's taking a risk. And yet putting outside how this is a gross insult to those acts who actively push the country sound and do it well, I can't even say what Zac Brown did here executed in its innovation - I still don't like The Outsiders much, but Church is an artist with the convictions and good taste to make a tonally consistent and heartfelt disaster of bad production. No, what The Owl represents isn't just a backslide, but the sort of galling, humiliating pivot that leaves me torn between embarrassment, disappointment, and genuine rage - this was a band where I've gone on a ledge on other platforms and other channels to promote their excellence, and they turn around to make this cacophonous wreck? Or to put it another way, not only is The Owl easily the worst thing the Zac Brown Band ever made, it might just be among the worst projects of any genre released by a mainstream label in 2019, a blight on the careers of every collaborator, and what might just be a career killer for the Zac Brown Band - a tepid Dave Cobb collaboration project isn't going to win folks back this time, Zac Brown, and the fact you had the audacity to tear into Luke Bryan's terrible music in 2013 while following it up with this... yeah, there's projects that deserve a thrashing, and this is one by a considerable margin.

And I'd like to start with a line from the band's press junket describing this album: their most 'personal album to date'. Normally, you say that about a project with some form of intimacy or deeper vulnerability, but I can't even get to the 'personal' part without questioning what personality is even here to highlight? How they thought they could get away with saying it while doubling down on a pop pivot with writing and production credits from Max Martin, Poo Bear, Ryan Tedder, Shawn Mendes and Skrillex is alarming on its face, but that obscures the first real problem: namely that this barely feels like a Zac Brown "band" album! The common observation has been that more of the electronic cuts sound like Sir Rosevelt rejects, but I can't even say that considering how many songs here seem to throw the loose, jam-band, defiantly country and southern rock style for the wayside in favour of bricked-out synthetic beats, rapping that would embarrass Kid Rock, and some of the worst mixing I've heard on a country album this decade - I'm talking Tangled Up by Thomas Rhett bad where the grooves are clunky, the punch-ins are obvious, and with blending on par with the worst cuts of The Outsiders. But as I said about The Outsiders, even if it didn't work, it at least felt like a unique vision - The Owl is the sort of project where I can hear certain production choices and not be remotely surprised at the names behind them - I've heard this before, and often done better! Take one of the experimental moments that comes close to working, 'Somebody That I Used To Know' - are the acoustics way too brittle against the snap beat against a mix saturating the melody in reverb? Well, of course, because that's what you get from Shawn Mendes and Watt behind it - Gotye and Kimbra should slap you for trying to steal the title of a better song, Brown! 

But step back - does anything I describe sound like something you'd expect to hear on a Zac Brown Band album, even one of the newest ones? Well, that's before I mention on that song there's a creaking, warped attempt at a drop that might come from a fiddle smothered in effects, and that's where you're forced to confront that the band themselves feels perfunctory on an album trying to dive headfirst into the worst ideas! The closest thing we get to a 'jam' song with the group is 'Me and the Boys in the Band', where the guitars do have some sizzle and a good fiddle pickup... but the warped clunk of the bass that's failing at funk, the rubbery percussion, and ugly muddiness of the blending, especially around the vocals, sounds like an attempt at southern rock that forgot any sense of tightness or uniqueness. And again, that's one of the better cuts - there are a few other stabs at a country adjacent sound like 'Finish What We Started', that takes its gentle padded groove and acoustics and further muddies it with a low electronic pulse and sweeping effects that feel sloppily mixed opposite Brandi Carlile's support and Zac Brown trying a Brothers Osborne impression, or the ugly, burbling groove of 'Shoofly Pie' where somehow the acoustic strumming and vocal harmonies are clipping the top of the mix to barely excuse that the groove was jacked straight from Eric Church's last album. What's more alarming is that it's one of many songs that just doesn't end properly - you'd think a spare piano ballad with genuinely nice-sounding strings like the closer like 'Leaving Love Behind' would be easy to nail, but it feels like it's missing a closing passage, with an abruptness I have to think is intentional but only somehow leaves the album feeling incomplete! 

And again, for as sloppily mixed as so many of these feel, these are the tracks that approach being passable, because the other two-thirds of this album are among some of the most misconceived and clumsy material I've heard in this vein this year... and we have to start with Zac Brown himself, where for a man who has one of the most powerful belting tones in mainstream country frequently sounds like a husk of himself. His "rapping" in particular has a clumsiness and dead-eyed lack of passion that made me question if he had given up altogether, but when you hear how fried some of his vocal range sounds across the first few songs of the album, I had serious doubts surrounding what state he recorded these vocals, and that's before he embraces a squawking delivery on the hook of 'God Given' that sounds painfully stiff and unnatural. But given he sounds fine enough on other songs, I'm given to think it's intentional - although it also raises questions of why he'll drop on an obvious filter for an attempt at griminess that doesn't blend with anything, like how horrible the pickup sounds on 'Warrior' as he tries for a Native-American inspired song that would have been in bad taste in 1992, especially as he tries to fuse it into a screeching drop with these buzzy warps and a weirdly tropical flair in the bass and guitars that sounds like something even Imagine Dragons wouldn't touch - oh, and there's a spoken word passage that was mixed like dogshit, as if you didn't think it was pretentious enough yet! And the utterly bizarre mixing choices continue on 'Already On Fire': why put the main vocal line so deep into a mix where there's jaunty pianos, organs, guitars, and what sounds like a surf rock progression and then feature clean backing vocals that are louder - this is a mistake American Authors made on their first album five years ago, and even they had the good sense to avoid a trap-infused pitch-shifted breakdown that's trying to sound hellish and fails utterly! And again, it only gets worse from there - where the guitars sound tracked like they pick up their own echo and sound seedy as hell on 'Need This' before we get island-inspired whirs and this weird chugging breakdown that matches nothing and backing vocals that sound imported from Ed Sheeran's 'Shape Of You', or the Dustin Lynch snap-stutter on 'OMW' with a bassy squonk that sounds like the Jonas Brothers would have rejected it on their last album - guess what was produced by Skrillex here - or how inert the guitar line sounds behind the trap skitter on 'God Given', where for some ungodly reason Zac Brown sounds like Lil Dicky rapping before he starts howling against this weird glossy film slathered all over the song! I cannot stress how horribly this album is mixed, with none of the organic warmth or blending that characterized The Foundation or Uncaged - this sounds like it was thrown together in Pro Tools the night before with presets for a different band, likely from a different planet!

And is it even worth my time to go into the songwriting on this thing? Let's be charitable and say that the Zac Brown Band at their best were decent songwriters - lyrics were never their strong suit, the writing could have a weirdly self-satisfied and condescending air to them, but it was always more about the harmonies and hooks anyway. So what happens when your harmonies feel hamfisted and you're giving over time to Zac Brown rapping with less flair and cadence than your average bro-country song from 2013? Well, you get lines like 'light me up like the twelve days of Christmas', you get songs built around the text shorthand 'OMW', you get a pre-chorus that feels following the folksy 'we all put our pants on one leg at a time' with the line 'the struggle's real', and with 'Shoofly Pie' you get the distressing sense that him eating it is an extended metaphor for cunnilingus - because why else are you describing how desperate you want it and everywhere you can consume it! And then there's 'God Given', which is an outright ass anthem that opens with the line 'gucci bag, stacks on stacks, diamonds fill up the champagne glass' and describes her butt as a 'fantasy land' - I should remind you all that this is what the Zac Brown Band described as their most 'personal' album to date! And I should stress that this is not a joke by any means - you can tell Zac Brown is at least self-aware that he's trying to sell something that's off the goddamn wall through the blatant subtext of 'The Woods', and songs like 'Warrior' and the ballads imply he believes what he's selling. But this is where that ugly stink of warped ego slides back in and blinds any self-awareness, because even if 'Somebody That I Used To Know' is calling out his own ego and hitting rock bottom in a messy, self-destructive explosion, it's still on the same damn album as 'God Given'! And 'Me and the Boys in the Band' has the same issue - it starts out trying to call out himself for his ego, but then proceeds on the second verse to say 'hey, what else are you doing in your life that's better than listening to us, so get out of the house and come over' - again, for this album! And then there are cuts that are just incoherent: 'Already On Fire' seems to be lionizing this lone woman tearing a swathe through everything in her path, and if I didn't know any better, I'd argue especially with that bridge highlighting her emotional breakdown we might have the theme song D&D imagined for Daenerys Targaryen, and if 'Finish What We Started' was focused on reconciliation, why does it feel like the framing is more for a long-overdue breakup? And yet it's the end that really grinds my gears: 'Leaving Love Behind', the sort of self-flagellating 'I'm leaving you to chase the road and yet that's how I learned to appreciate love' - it's not self-reflective, it's self-congratulatory, with a martyrdom complex that again, coming off of this album feels incredibly unearned!

But that's the most telling thing: because you can tell on some level the Zac Brown Band think this is going to be a smash record, that they're confident these half-formed, atrociously produced fragments will be enough to win a mainstream fanbase, on those and name alone. But with their label yanking all support for singles and the critical reaction utterly dire, this might be a ghastly mistake - hell, this might be the biggest example of Zac Brown's hubris backfiring to date. And yet even if I'm on the same side as most critics, I don't think they've gone far enough, and to illustrate that I have to highlight a lyric on the very first song: 'some work on trash like a Kardas-trophe surgeon'. Congratulations, Zac Brown, I'm now stuck defending the fucking Kardashians because for as trashy as they can be, they've never had real expectations of quality - unlike you, who somehow delivered a project more worthless than their recorded output. I'm not sure this is the worst album of 2019 - Juice WRLD and AJR set a low bar - but it is absolutely the most heinous dropoff in quality I've possibly ever covered in this series. In other words, a very light 2/10, avoid this shit like the plague, and if this does not utterly destroy the Zac Brown Band's careers, they should be thanking every higher power on bended knee. And given so many owls are endangered and near-extinction... yeah, take this instead; nobody should miss it.

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