You have got to hand it to the Zac Brown Band. The highly decorated outfit has long since given up worrying about what country purists think of its music. It would be one thing if the Georgia-bred band teamed up with noted electronic DJs or pop producers to create a sleek, decidedly un-country album, only to publicly pass it off as “modern country,” but that’s certainly not what Brown and company are doing with its latest record, The Owl.
When the band announced the new record in July, Brown was quote in a press release saying, “We are always pushing ourselves as musicians by blurring genre boundaries and incorporating all kinds of music we are personally inspired by, elevating what we are capable as a group. This album will have something for everyone.”
Everyone, except most likely, someone who appreciates the traditional-leaning sounds of Brown’s earlier work.
Judging by the way the album begins, it’s hard not to feel as though Brown is trolling a bit. His most hardcore fans likely won’t be terribly fazed by the overtly slick pop songs, because if we’re being fair, it’s not as though Brown’s experimental nature is only just now revealing itself. It doesn’t take a tenured musicologist to know Brown’s long but chosen a less-country, more pop path. It’s evident in not only his more recent band records, but it’s the basis for his Sir. Rosevelt dance-pop side project.
For the uninitiated, Sir Rosevelt is equivalent of Brown looking at Garth Brooks’ schlocky Chris Gaines alter-ego, and saying, “hold my vodka Red Bull, I got this.”
Much of The Owl, which features collaborations with EDM star Skrillex, uber-producer Benny Blanco (Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry) and One Republic’s Ryan Tedder sounds more like the band trolling its listeners than anything else. “The Woods,” “Need This,” and “OMW” may very well be outtakes from the latest Sir Roosevelt recording session. And, maybe, just maybe, that’s where these particular, insipid songs should’ve stayed.
For its part, “OMW,” latter-day text lingo for “on my way” plays out like a 3:20-long midlife crisis. If Brown didn’t write this song while flipping through the latest Maxim and sitting in a new corvette filled with vape smoke while parked in a hair plug clinic, then we should all count that as a victory.
The bones of some decent songs are here, though their mercilessly hidden under sheets of oily, viscous production. “Me and the Boys in the Band” a southern soul rocker has classic ZBB swagger, and the pleasantly soft-rock “Finish What We Started,” featuring Brandi Carlile, is a fine example of what can happen when a bit of boundary stretching goes well.
Although the soldier-appreciating “Warrior” has an admirable message, it’s demolished by beats and production that make it sound more like the 1985 Italian disco hit “Tarzan Boy” than should be legally allowed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the emotional piano ballad “Leaving Love Behind” closes the record with a lovely, confessional tone.
To steal an earlier ZBB album title, this record could’ve been named Jekyll + Hyde, due to the musical whiplash you’ll get when giving it a spin.