Album Review – Zac Brown Band’s “Jekyll + Hyde”

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“What gives Zac Brown Band a lot more creative latitude with their music is the fact that they’re honest about not really being country. We’re all music fans first, and then our loyalties split down the lines of various genres. If only more artists were honest about their intentions, it would give us the opportunity to enjoy the music more.”

—From Saving Country Music’s review of the song “Homegrown” originally posted January 12th, 2015.

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Any fan of music should want to like a certain piece of music set before them more than they should not want to like it as a predisposition. Many times our loyalties and tastes in music split down cultural divisions that really have nothing to do with the quality of the music itself, and these prejudices stifle our ability to get the most enjoyment out of our musical experience. As Saving Country Music has said many times on the subject of the Zac Brown Band—whether in positive takes on the first single from this album “Homegrown,” or the bands last release The Grohl Sessions—you have to lay down your country music loyalties to gain the greatest enjoyment from their music, and music fans should be more than willing to do so instead of bellyaching about how country an album is or isn’t, or being in opposition to even listening to Zac Brown Band because their first single was “Chicken Fried.”

But none of this gives carte blanche to any artist or band to toy with the emotions and loyalties of their listeners, whatever the reason might be for them to wander out of their corner of the music world, or journey beyond the comfort zone of their average fan.

When Zac Brown Band decided to start off their new album with the most unfortunate EDM dance club song “Beautiful Drug,” they immediately broke the covenant between artist and fan. To start the album out with this song was a fireable offense, and despite whatever transpired next, the experience was soured for all but a small segment of listeners who either truly enjoyed the song, or are blinded by loyalty. You want to release a song like “Beautiful Drug” so you can land a serious single on pop radio under the idea of exposing all of your music to a broader audience? Okay, we can have that discussion. But bury it in the track list, especially since you have sixteen songs to insulate it.

zac-brown-band-jekyl-hydeBut the first track is not where issues with Jekyll + Hyde cease. Since “Beautiful Drug” was the first song, it stuck out, but there’s not much difference between it and the electronic approach to “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Of course there’s not as much vitriol or even discussion about it, because it’s buried in the track list, and released with an alternative acoustic version.

Let’s take the fact that there’s very little that is truly country on this album, and set that aside. Forget about how Zac Brown came up through the country ranks, all the country awards, or the fact that this review is being published on a website called “Saving Country Music.” Wipe the slate clean, and let’s just look at this album as music. And even in this light, it is still a disjointed mess.

Music is not a skills competition. This isn’t the decathlon. They don’t hand out Grammy Awards for the band that can play songs from the most genres. They give Grammys to the artists who steady themselves and prove they are the best in a given musical discipline. I’ll give credit to the backing band of Weird Al for their alacrity. With the Zac Brown Band, I just want to hear good songs. I’m not impressed that they can segue from a Frank Sinatra-inspired sonnet into progressive grunge. If I’m feeling in those moods, I’ll go listen to the bands and artists who’ve mastered those mediums and made music from inspiration, instead of someone trying to impress me with their shape shifting ability.

Still, are there some good songs on Jekyll + Hyde? Sure there are, and surprise surprise Gomer Pyle, they’re the ones that fit best into Zac Brown Band’s already-established sphere of Southern-style rock.

What about everything else? Why is this album such a hodgepodge? I’m not exactly sure. There’s a few theories. Maybe it’s self-indulgence on the Zac Brown Band’s part. A song like “Mango Tree” may be fun to play, and it’s probably not the place for any fan or critic to get in the way of the artist’s own enjoyment in the music they make. But choosing to include “Mango Tree” on a full featured album was a grave mistake. You want to go out there and play ballroom crooner with Sara Bareilles? Hey, knock yourself out. But don’t make your Southern rock-oriented fans have to sit through it. It’s not the right place. Throw it out on a Record Store Day special release. Make it a hidden track for attentive folks to get a kick out of. But don’t speed bump your first LP in three years with side project material. Have more respect for your listeners.

Maybe Jekyll + Hyde is Zac Brown Band’s attempt to dominate the entire music world by releasing singles that cover just about every discipline of music, eventually shaping the band into the Dave Matthews of our day. We already know Zac Brown is into empire building with his food line and festivals, his clothing and accessories, with the music and touring being the centerpiece of it all. Jekyll + Hyde definitely feels like it’s meant to be a flagship, with sixteen little side boats that can be cast off and bring back new parishioners under the Zac Brown Band umbrella.

But without knowing the exact intentions of Jekyll + Hyde (and I wouldn’t trust whatever intelligence comes out in the media, because it’s likely to just be more marketing), the album is still rich with symbolism for where music is today in the mainstream. Nobody is making albums; they’re making collections of singles. Similarly to Eric Church’s The Outsiders, this is just a collection of songs with no cohesive theme, despite what appears to be a grand approach to the project. There’s too much music here to crunch in one sitting, and the songs don’t compliment each other and equal a greater number than the sum of their parts; they clash and create confusion.

There’s some great artistry and instrumentation on this album, but you have to sift through so much chaff to get to it. And how are you supposed to compliment the instrumentation of an album that crosses the Rubicon of introducing electronic drum beats and synthesizers into their music?

As for the idea that Jekyll + Hyde embodies some sort of evolution of popular music, and that it’s not their fault if they ruffle the feathers of a few listeners in the process. “Evolution” is the most overused cover for commercial exploitation that has ever been concocted in country music, and those flimsy arguments weren’t holding up when they were being refuted five years ago, and today they just feel laughable. Frank Zappa was evolving popular music with Hot Rats in 1969. Phish was too with Junta in 1992. Zac Brown Band is just trying to keep Scott Borchetta and John Varvatos happy with their investment, and throwing in a few progressive songs that in reality are more interpretive than original in the process.

Making it even worse, everyone on Music Row has been parroting the whole “evolution” manta for so long now, they’re starting to believe their own bullshit, and it’s starting to result in unfortunate albums just like this.

It all just feels so calculated. Great albums come from inspiration. They come from artists feeling something, or experiencing something, and then taking that something and articulating it through music that falls within the discipline of their roots and interests. Give all the points you want to Zac Brown Band for technical proficiency, but even then if you get right down to it, there’s bands and musicians out there that could run circles around these guys, and guess what, they’re probably making uninspired music too. The entire Jekyll + Hyde experience just makes me sad for the music world we live in today, because it makes you wonder if you’ll ever hear another legendary album you’ll be listening to 30 years from now.

I want to like the Zac Brown Band, and this album especially. At the start of 2015, this was one of the most-anticipated projects, stemming from the creative momentum from the Dave Grohl EP, their shepherding of Sturgill Simpson on his meteoric rise, and the inclusion of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” (which feels like it just gets lost in the shuffle). Yes there’s a few good songs and let’s not slight them in this process. But I’m sorry, the effort as a whole is sub par, whether you consider it beside mainstream country peers, or without considering genre at all.

ALBUM GRADE: 1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.


SONG GRADES

PLEASE NOTE: When grading albums, the entirety of the work has to be considered, including cohesiveness and theme. Songs however are graded on their individual merit. So this is not a mathematical equation. Please don’t attempt to say that either the album grade or song grades don’t make sense based off of one another and mathematical reasoning. The intent of offering individual song grades is to highlight the worthy songs on a lengthy and very diverse album.

1. “Beautiful Drug”

Rating: Two guns way down – “There is one thing to take away from “Beautiful Drug” and one thing only: Zac Brown wants your fucking money America. I would label this a sellout moment, but even that seems to slight just what depravity of character the Zac Brown Band evidences by releasing this song, especially as the first track on an album.” (read full review)

2. “Loving You Easy”

Rating: One Gun Up – Another single from the record, the song skims above the flotsam and jetsam of modern country that is riding a wave of R&B influenced singles in the lack of any real direction. By having a bit more of a vintage feel with the strings in the background and some lyrical depth, it separates itself from the heard, but still doesn’t offer the listener much.

3. “Remedy”

Rating: 1 3/4 Guns Up – Though the song, like this album, feels a little busy and disparate in place, this is the Zac Brown Band zeroing in on what they do best. They turn in an inspired song and performance, the outside influences feel endearing as opposed to forced, and the harmonies are heavenly.

4. “Homegrown”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Up – “Homegrown” won’t mint Zac Brown Band any awards, but it’s a really solid track, savvy as a first single from a new album by being accessible, slightly adventurous, and pleasantly familiar, making you anticipate what else they may have baking in the oven.” (read full review)

5. “Mango Tree”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Down – Not as much of a bad song as a bad decision to include it on a project like this. In another context, it could be refreshing and unexpected. Here however, it seems misplaced and self-indulgent.

6. “Heavy Is The Head”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Up – The song itself just tries a little too hard, and comes across more as interpretive of some sort of Soundgarden style of progressive metal as opposed to a cool, original composition. Nonetheless, Zac Brown Band uses the track to prove their technical adeptness and a tenacity that you may have not known was in them. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is the lyrics in the song, which might actually be some of the best on the album. Maybe a little too “Game of Thrones” for some, but they illustrate some serious depth.

7. “Bittersweet”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Up – A sweet, imitate song with a good pentameter and dynamics. A little too easy to get lost from though, and this is aided by the fact that it’s too quiet. Every time this song came up when listening, I had to check if someone had turned the volume down. The mixing was a little overthought perhaps, but a solid effort.

8. “Castaway”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Down – Oh great. Another beach song. Catchy, I guess.

9. “Tomorrow Never Comes”

Rating: Two Guns Down – Once again this is the Zac Brown Band veering into the EDM dance club world. Compared to “Beautiful Drug” there a little bit more depth in the lyrics, but just barely. It’s pretty unforgivable.

10. “One Day”

Rating: 1 1/4 Guns Up. Another attempt to ride the R&B trend, but again the vintage feel and arrangement is something much easier to appreciate than its peers. This is still sort of out of Zac Brown Band’s comfort zone, and just makes you wonder why we need a song like this. What is the point? There’s plenty of songs that sound like this, but are better.

11. “Dress Blues”

Rating: 1 3/4 Guns Up – Unfortunately this track feels a little overlooked with everything else going on, but it is by far the most country track of the record, and Zac Brown’s fiddle player finally has something to do. The electric guitar in the middle of the song could have used some reigning in, but overall it’s a fine take. Interesting to note that this is the only song on the album not co-written by Zac Brown. He must have really liked this Jason Isbell composition.

12. “Young and Wild”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Down – Ugh. Well the good thing about having three songs that require a DJ to perform similarly live is you can justify the expense of bringing one out on the road. So many unfortunate decisions were made on this song that wasn’t especially good compositionally to begin with, but wasn’t terrible. Can’t stop thinking about Kenny Chesney’s “Wild Child” when listening to this.

13. “Junkyard”

Rating: One Gun Up – I want to get into this song, but I feel like Zac Brown is auditioning for the soundtrack of the new Mad Max reboot or a video game. Yes, bravo that this band has the prowess to pull a song like this off, but it’s too disjointed. I think there’s a good message here, but it’s sort of hard to discern. Good effort on a fairly forgettable song.

14. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter)”

Rating: 1 1/2 Guns Up – This is a very sweet song, but the reggae-ish vibe at the beginning veers it too close to being yet another island song offering, which at this point in Zac’s career should be avoided. Really this is two songs, with the first half offering really good songwriting, and the second offering an excellent multi-layer singing performance. But just like much of the album, it just tries too hard, and doesn’t really expose the heart of the inspiration behind the song. It relies too much on being wowed by whats going on as opposed to feeling something embodied in a sentiment. It tries at the beginning to do this, but then gets somewhat suffocated. Still, it’s one of the better tracks. PS: The cajón is the scourge of modern country.

15. “Wildfire”

Rating: One Gun Up – I don’t know. My head hurts. So much going on. Let the song breathe.

16. “Tomorrow Never Comes (Acoustic Version)”

Rating: 1 3/4 Guns Down – Nice try, but this song just doesn’t have the lyrical or thematic depth to even work stripped down. I appreciate the approach, but it may have been more cool to do with a song that actually says something.