Zac Brown attempts crossover move, fails

Zac Brown and the Zac Brown Band perform at Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek in Raleigh, North Carolina, Friday, May 11, 2012.  Associated Press
Zac Brown and the Zac Brown Band perform at Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek in Raleigh, North Carolina, Friday, May 11, 2012.
Associated Press

By Jonathon S. Platt
Web & social media editor

It seems like all the albums I’ve reviewed for the Lariat have been over artists making crossover jumps in genre. So when I sat down with Zac Brown Band’s new release, I was a little disappointed to learn it was following this trend.

The Zac Brown Band released its fourth studio album, “Jekyll + Hyde” (No Reserve, Inc.), on Tuesday to mixed reviews. The band left its typical slow, acoustic guitar rhetoric from songs like “Chicken Fried” and “Highway 20 Ride.”

2star cc

Reviewer’s favorites:
1. “Heavy Is The Head”
2. “Castaway”

Overall, the album is uninteresting and truly awful to listen to in a start-to-finish manner. I know I’m an outlier, listening to albums holistically instead of jumping from pop tune to pop tune, but it’s infuriating to hear an artist put such heart and work into an album that doesn’t tell a story.

Don’t get me wrong. The songs on the band’s new release are phenomenal. I was continually impressed by the new and unique elements Brown incorporated into each track. But before his next project, I think Brown needs to listen to a couple old-school rock albums to learn the true progress of story telling — the best example, of course, is Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

Another big problem with the album is its predictability. Brown’s band typically always has an iconic love anthem in each release. This time it’s “Remedy,” which reminds me of “Highway 20 Ride” and a slower form of “Chicken Fried.”

The band also always has that Jimmy Buffett-esque song (sometimes sung alongside Buffett himself, like with “Knee Deep”). This time it’s “Castaway.” This is the song I probably appreciate the most on “Jekyll + Hyde.”

It incorporates everything I hoped for when I saw Brown’s new album in the iTunes store. From beginning to end, it’s such a great sea shanty tune. Truly, all it’s missing is Jimmy Buffett.

A major bump upward for this album is the incorporation of new accompaniment voices. Stacked back-to-back are “Mango Tree” with Sara Bareilles, who promised not to write us a love song, and “Heavy Is The Head” with Chris Cornell, Rolling Stone’s ninth best lead singer of all time.

“Mango” is like “Castaway” meets Frank Sinatra. Very islandy, but also very show-tunish. Brown and Bareilles sing a story of a pair of lovers who want nothing more than to think about only tonight in paradise.

“Take your time ‘cause we got time to borrow,” Brown sings. “I love you. Say you love me too. We can turn the whole world upside down.”

“Heavy Is The Head” is a completely different animal. This song is like nothing the Zac Brown Band has done before. The hardcore rock tone favors Cornell’s vocals much better than Brown’s, but the song is not diluted.

It’s a refreshing splash of different in the middle of a quite predictable album.

In hearing “Heavy” for the first time, I was reminded of when Tim McGraw did a crossroads single with Def Leppard. The contemporary country king and rock icons did “Nine Lives” much justice, and the same can be said of Brown and Cornell’s work.

Also on the album is Brown’s cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues.” While country music does often paint neo-patriotic strokes, Brown’s honest attempt at owning this military-themed anthem is overshadowed by his inability to escape a wannabe singer-songwriter sound.

In short, I’d give this album no more than two stars. While there are several great four and four-and-a-half star songs on it, they just don’t work well stacked next to each other.

I’m normally all for artists challenging the assumptions placed on them by the industry and by fans, but this go-around I’m going to have to say that the Zac Brown Band needs to stick with its tune.

Because, honestly, this isn’t really a genre jump. It’s the same band playing generally the same songs but with a few different instruments.