Review – Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”

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Welcome Home. As you longtime readers know, I wasn’t fond of Zac Brown Band’s last album Jekyll + Hyde. While it wasn’t a bad album, it was a disappointment and I let my criticisms of the album be known, most notably the lackluster songwriting and releasing an EDM song to country radio. They were better than this and many other fans expressed the same. The band seemed to get the message, as in late 2016 they let it be known their next album would go back to their roots. Now we get to hear if they walk the walk with their new single “My Old Man.” From the very first listen, it’s quite clear that this group is back where they belong. There’s no other way to put this: the song is gorgeous and features Zac Brown Band at their best. The song is about a man recalling the upbringing by his father and the impact it had on him. He’s now a father of his own and hoping to pass this along to his own son. All the while he’s hoping his father is still looking down on him, hoping he’s as proud of him as a man when he was a child. This is the type of impactful and emotion-packed songwriting I’ve been wanting to hear from them. Brown delivers the same type of vulnerable vocal performance that he delivered with “Grandma’s Garden” on Southern Family, perfectly fitting the song. The harmonies are great and well placed. Then we get to the instrumentation, which is an area Zac Brown Band has always thrived in. But they even take this to a new level, with the delicate acoustic guitar sweeping through the song and excellent fiddle play from Jimmy de Martini is heavily featured that was so lacking on the previous album. Of course credit has to also go to Dave Cobb, who is producing this song and the entirety of their upcoming album Welcome Home (I had a sneaking suspicion after seeing the band switched to Elektra/Warner). “My Old Man” is absolutely fantastic and this makes me pretty excited for what’s in-store for the rest of the album.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES!

 

Written by Zac Brown, Niko Moon & Ben Simonetti

Album Review – Zac Brown Band’s Experimental ‘Jekyll + Hyde’ Is All Over The Place

ZBB Jekyll + Hyde

Complex. Diverse. Different. These are the words that most aptly describe the new album, Jekyll + Hyde, from Zac Brown Band. Never before have I heard a country album so diverse in sound. Thankfully it came early in the mail for me, which allowed me extra time to wrap my head around it. If I had to wait until today to hear, you probably wouldn’t have read this review until next week. I’m not going to waste time on an intro and jump right in, as this is the longest review I’ve ever written on Country Perspective (I probably could have written even more). I will say this before I begin: this is most difficult review I’ve ever taken on, for many different reasons. So grab a drink and sit in a comfy chair as I take you through this album.

This wild album begins with “Beautiful Drug,” where right away you hear something you thought you never would from Zac Brown Band. They’ve gone electric, as this is a straight up folktronica song. The song itself is about being in love with a girl. While these electronic sounds are upbeat and fun, what is the point of this? There was no reason for Zac Brown Band to do this other than chase radio play. While it will be a fun song to play this upcoming summer, nobody is going to remember it. Next is their new single, “Loving You Easy.” It’s again a song about being in love with a girl. Once again it’s also a new sound for the band, as it’s decidedly a Motown/country fusion. The instrumentation is upbeat and fun. The fiddle play throughout is nice too. But these lyrics are straight up fluff and in no way original. I can see why this is a single.

“Remedy” has the classic Zac Brown Band sound for the most part. Brown co-wrote this with Americana artist Keb Mo, Niko Moon and Wyatt Durrette. It’s a song about loving each other and how it’s the remedy to solving problems in the world. It’s a nice sentiment, but the opening lyrics are a tad hypocritical after hearing the first two songs. The opening lyrics:

I’ve been looking for a sound

That makes my heart sing

Been looking for a melody

That makes the church bells ring

Not looking for the fame

Or the fortune it might bring

In love, in music, in life

With the first three albums this seems to be true. But when you’re adding Motown and folktronica sounds to your arsenal on a country album I find this hard to believe. You’re admitting that you’re chasing trends, which leads to fame and fortune with these types of songs. Just thought I would point this out. I know they’ve been upfront about not being your prototypical country band, but this is still labeled a country album. The drums and gospel choir at the end of the song are also unnecessary, but don’t hurt the song too much.

I already discussed the lead single, “Homegrown,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. Check out my full review of that if you missed it. Moving on, the band tackles another completely new sound in “Mango Tree.” Err rather I should say Zac Brown, as the band feels completely missing on this song. This is a straight up big band song from the Sinatra era, which is cool and weird. Brown duets in the song with Sara Bareilles, a talented pop artist who has a great voice, as the song is pulled off well by the duo. It’s a good song, but why is it on the album? This will be okay if it stays an album cut I guess, but with the inclusion of Bareilles I don’t think this will be the case. Like I said this is a good song, but it doesn’t belong on this album and it doesn’t belong on country radio. The winding shifts of sounds in this album continues, as “Heavy Is The Head” is next. It’s a hard rock song and it’s the current #1 song on the Billboard Rock Airplay chart. Brown is joined on the song by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. It isn’t very surprising that Brown can pull off rock music, as the band has balanced between country music and southern fried rock their whole career. Once again though I feel like the band is missing and it’s a Brown solo project. This is another song while good, does not belong on the album. It would’ve fit in much better on The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 EP.

Finally the group delivers a beautiful song that showcases their great talent in “Bittersweet.” It’s one of the best written songs on the album, as it’s about a man losing his wife to a disease and how he’s reflecting on the fact that tomorrow she won’t be there with him. The songwriting evokes great emotion in the listener and might even bring a tear to your eye. The instrumentation is equally good and I love the guitar and fiddles crashing in at the end of the song to really punctuate the song. This is the Zac Brown Band I know and love on this song. “Castaway” is a beach song and I don’t think I have to say anymore about what this song is about. I’ve said before that I feel Zac Brown Band pulls off these types of songs better than about anyone else out there, with maybe the exception of Jimmy Buffett. The instrumentation is a great blend of reggae and country. In addition Brown has enough charisma to make the song likable. But a part of me feels like the Zac Brown Band has outgrown this music. This song is also a perfect example of why some people can’t take them seriously. You’ll either love this song or hate it, depending on your outlook on beach songs.

Once again the group dives into folktronica on “Tomorrow Never Comes.” There’s also an acoustic version of the song at the end of the album. Listeners are going to automatically compare the two, but before I do I want to talk about the song itself. It’s pretty good and can paint of a variety of different images in the listeners’ heads. It has no specific theme, leaving the listener to decide. I enjoy these types of songs, as music is a subjective art. As for what version I think is better, it’s easily the acoustic version. While they pull off folktronica better on this song than on “Beautiful Drug,” it still feels too noisy and uncharacteristic of the group. The acoustic version is beautiful and maybe my favorite song on the album. It shouldn’t be the acoustic version. It should be the only version. There should never be an acoustic version of a song on a Zac Brown Band album, as acoustic is Zac Brown Band. They gave folktronica a shot, but ultimately I feel they should stay away from it. All country artists should stay away and leave it to the likes of Avicii in pop music.

“One Day” is the group’s spin on the R&B/funk influenced country. This is another song that is closer to the band’s true sound, as the R&B influence naturally blends with it. It’s a pleasant song about love, which at this point is starting to become a bit tiresome. This isn’t the great songwriting we’re used to hearing from Brown and the band. It might make for decent single on radio, but it’s honestly not very memorable. One of the first three songs released on the album, “Dress Blues,” is next. This Jason Isbell-penned song is the best on Jekyll + Hyde because of course it is. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song about the harsh reality of sending young soldiers to fight wars. I give kudos to Zac Brown Band for covering such a brilliant song and giving Isbell much deserved exposure (and some nice royalty checks). By the way if you’re wondering who the woman on backing vocals is, that’s the one and only Jewel. I thought she sounded pretty good. I enjoy both versions of the song, but if you must know which I prefer it’s Isbell’s version.

On “Young And Wild” I think I’m the most baffled at the production. There are production issues throughout this album, but it’s at its worst on this song. There are so many unnecessary sounds thrown in that bring the song down and make it hard to enjoy. This is on co-producer Jay Joyce, who I’m going to rant about here in a minute. The lyrics are once again too fluffy for my liking and are also too similar to other themes explored in the album. One of the most complex and intriguing songs on the album is “Junkyard.” It’s a gritty story about a child who lives with an abusive father, the junkyard man. This father is very abusive and controlling of not just the child, but the mother too. By the end of the song the child has had enough and murders the father with a knife. It’s an intense song and tells a great story. The part where the child has had enough in the song the electric guitars kicks it up a notch, signifying the shift in attitude brilliantly. This is one of the few moments on the album where Zac Brown Band tries something different and it works well.

“I’ll Be Your Man” (Song For A Daughter) is a song that is sung from the point of view of a father to his daughter. He sings about how he will always protect her and be there for her. For fathers listening to this song, you’ll connect really well with this song. For the rest, it’s a decent song. It could’ve been better, but it stretches on entirely too long and the addition of a choir towards the end is not needed. Once again it’s an overproduced song. The penultimate song on the album is “Wildfire.” It should be noted that Brown co-wrote this song with Eric Church, Clay Cook, Wyatt Durrette and Liz Rose. It’s once again a love song with laundry list lyrics. The instrumentation is pretty good, but I think the production is a little overdone. If that’s stripped back a little, this song sounds better. I’m baffled again too how fluffy the lyrics are and I’m left wanting something more.

Now I want to talk about producer Jay Joyce. When I saw fellow critic Mark Grondin of Spectrum Pulse point this out, I immediately realized why I had such a conflicted feeling about this album and why I don’t love it. For those unaware of Joyce’s track record, he was the producer behind Eric Church’s 2014 release The Outsiders, Little Big Town’s Pain Killer and Halestorm’s newly released album Into The Wildlife. You know what all of those albums had in common for me? They were overproduced, underwhelming and pretty disappointing. I’m left with pretty much the same feeling with Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde. It isn’t a coincidence that Joyce was behind each of these albums and I didn’t like them as much as I thought I would. He’s a huge problem and is a monster that needs to be stopped. Stop ruining music, Jay Joyce.

When it comes down to it this is probably one of the biggest disappointments in country music in 2015 for me. Zac Brown Band’s previous album Uncaged was one of my favorite country albums in the last five years. They could have easily expanded off of that album. Instead Brown brings Joyce aboard so he can muck up the sound of a great band. It was only the talent of the band where they were allowed to shine that saved this album from being a mediocre mess and make it something decent and somewhat listenable. Shame on Zac Brown for bringing Joyce into the fold and going all Bono on this album. For the first time ever I felt like the ego and business acumen of Zac Brown hurt the final product. Many Zac Brown Band fans and I’m sure many critics too will eat this album up, just like Church’s album and Little Big Town’s album. It will sell really well and do good on radio. But the cold hard truth is that there are a lot more albums that will outshine this one by far. Ultimately I will forget about Jekyll + Hyde and remember it as lackluster effort. For now I’m left disgusted, betrayed, confused and disappointed with this album.

Grade: 6/10

Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

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On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.