Two Fridays ago, the Zac Brown Band released their sixth studio album, The Owl, acquiring almost as many producers as it does tracks. In an age where casual listeners will often answer the question of what kind of music they listen to with, “I don’t know, just not Country,” well, this album may serve them right. But is it really Country?
The band took on a pretty drastic musical transition, almost ‘Taylor Swift-style,’ with their conforming to the idioms of Pop. While they still remained somewhat true to their country roots, Zac Brown Band incorporated some noticeably cliche, formulaic infusions of pop production into their new LP, officially making their stand into the nauseating ‘subgenre’ that is “Electro-Country.” The Owl makes Garth Brooks look like Johnny Cash, and now, Country’s more dead than that “man in Reno.”
Perhaps one of the most influential producers on this record, Pop guru, Max Martin, allegedly dictated Taylor Swift’s transition from Country to balls-to-the-wall Electro-Pop. Though I’ll hand it to Zac Brown for once again defying genres by infusing textures from otherwise separate musical worlds, this fusion of electronica and country doesn’t feel authentic; this felt like a commercial decision.
This past year, the band signed a new management deal with talent manager and record executive, Scooter Braun, who enabled Brown to work with reputable names alongside Martin like Benny Blanco, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, and even Skrillex. Entering the studio this past year, Brown was bound for a new sound.
Since their 2008 debut The Foundation, Zac Brown Band displayed a spark of hope in the world of tasteful country lovers and southern rock enthusiasts (Billboard actually categorizes Zac Brown Band as a Southern Rock band).
One of my personal favorite numbers from The Foundation era is the comforting, downbeat-driven “Free,” proceeding a prelude track, “Violin Intro to Free.” The strongest rendition of this song is a live version single featuring singer Clare Bowen. Recorded at the 2013 Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in Nashville, the band infuses “Free” with Van Morrison’s 1970 hit, “Into the Mystic.” The performance highlighted the band’s unique ability to combine prominent songwriting with the ‘nothing to hide’ musicianship of prodigious country musicians.
The Owl does not feature this band.
The record opens with “The Woods,” a blatant, ‘yee-haw’ party anthem with bumping electronic beats and a fiddle riding along the hook to ‘country it up’ a little bit. The tune takes on that pop cliche where the lead hook and chorus fade out real quick to become muffled but then comes right back with the verse. The chorus keeps repeating, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” eventually leading back to “folks staying out of the woods and I’m getting in em.’” I suppose it’s a song about being willing to explore and not turning away any new opportunities. But the concept seems as contrived as its opening, bumping chorus line, “na-na oh, na-na.”
Track 2, “Need This,” establishes the same, poppy, bouncing pulse. While at first luring in the listener with its acoustic guitars playing alongside a ‘60s FM electric piano sound, all hope is lost once Brown interjects his offly strange, out-of-place, “country rapping” I guess you’d call it.
“OMW,” another instant throwaway, blatantly mimics Shawn Mendes. Replaced with EDM beats and synths that nobody turns to Zac Brown for, the band’s disappeared. You’d think it’s a parody; Brown simply doesn’t sound like himself here.
“Warrior,” track 8, serves as the third track’s twin, a formulaic, electronic hook that utilizes none of Brown’s exceptional bandmates.
“Someone I Used to Know,” the album’s first single, follows a similar format with an opening pop-hook ala Justin Bieber–makes sense considering Brown’s new army of pop producers. While the tune carries out the natural rings of acoustic guitars, the melody becomes overbearingly unoriginal alongside its hand-snaps and kick drum + snare beat. The pre-released single became an alleged indicator the album might not do so well, considering it only reached no. 34 on Country Airplay; the band’s second single to not make it in the Top 20 of this category.
Finally, after four tracks of mirroring teenie-bop heartthrobs, the band finally touches upon its Southern Rock roots with “Me and the Boys in the Band.” Not wanting to trash this whole album, this gave me a sigh of relief. The tune encompasses G major pentatonics atop a gritty, guitar-heavy riff interjecting between verses and choruses. The song also features a bass solo in the middle, giving the track even more character. The song approaches the end with some crafty, Elton-esque piano work and a killer fiddle solo. A Southern Rock milestone in the age of Modern Country, this is the Zac Brown Band we want.
Track 6, “Finish What We Started,” features Brandi Carlile, whose vocal style encompasses a matured tonality reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt. The tune itself carries out nicely with the melody fitting Brown’s bass range below Carlile’s refreshing alto. A purist balladeer might be displeased with the song’s production; instead of using Brown’s stellar backing band, the tune relies solely on a mellow, electronic pulse that steadily paces its way through the number. While the composition itself is solid, the recording strips away the songwriters’ mutual character.
“Gucci bag, stacks on stacks, diamonds fill the champagne glass,” opens “God Given.” I’m gonna stop right there.
“Shoofly Pie,” takes some twists and turns the listener won’t see coming. Opening with a steady bass groove–played with human fingers, the track falls into a comfortable bop of bluesy, slide-guitars and solid bass work. At 1:37, the last line of the chorus pauses on a slow D minor chord that leaves you wondering. Immediately from there the tune goes into a slow, theatrical waltz of whole notes using secondary dominant chords, giving it a soulful twist. On top of that, Brown brings in the pitch-perfect vocal harmonies of his bandmates, allowing the song to speak for itself. The slow portion comes off so strongly it could even be another song within itself–but that’s not gonna keep them teens movin.’
“Already on Fire,” easily the strangest number on the LP, opens with a straight-forward, ‘A minor’ rock reminiscent of later Dire Straits. Incorporating modern pop production, the song counteracts this with twangy guitars, pianos, and lap steels. It ain’t real country without lap steels. Though it’s formulaic in its composition, it’s not bad. But it takes a weird turn at the 2:00 mark. Someone thought it’d be pretty hip to put Brown’s voice through a demonic vocal transformer, lowering his voice 7 octaves, and have him speak nonsense. The only thing I can compare this to is Frank Zappa’s vocal alteration in “Stinkfoot.” It all falls apart here, because with the vocal transformer comes the trap beats. Zac, that’s a no-no.
The Owl concludes with “Leaving Love Behind,” an autobiographical, piano-driven ballad likely narrating Brown’s recent separation from his wife. Rhythmically, the chorus is solid, and its melody fits into the distinctive vocal key of F# major nicely. Three quarters through the song, a satisfying string section responds to Brown’s lyrics, but the ballad ends abruptly, as if it were cut off in the middle–and the album is over. The song at least provokes thought, and with its humble, minimal production, the listener might pay attention to Brown’s narrative.
That is, if they’re not looking for more Shawn Mendes parodies.
Review By: Charlie Krause