For years, the greatest asset of the Capitol Records Nashville-signed duo Brothers Osborne was that they weren’t Florida Georgia Line. Despite sales and a tour draw that didn’t even begin to come close to what country’s Beevis and Butthead were doing, true brothers John and T.J. rattled off three consecutive CMA Vocal Duo of the Year awards between 2016 to 2018, just for showing they had half a brain, and for taking the right stand on social issues on Twitter.
But despite the shiny awards show hardware, it was still hard to pin down who exactly Brothers Osborne were, or to find them on the radio. Brother T.J’s bass voice was just about perfect for putting to country music, and John was undeniably a deftly-skilled guitar player. It was their output that lent to more questions than answers.
The duo’s debut album Pawn Shop showed both promise, and a propensity to pander for radio play. Their second record Port Saint Joe was a palpable step forward in maturity, and was surprisingly more country and rootsy than most expected. The record did significant work to answer some of those lingering question about what Brothers Osborne were, with the answer being one of the better acts in the mainstream.
Then here comes their new record Skeletons, which most certainly has it’s moments. But where Port Saint Joe surprised us for all the right reasons, Skeletons is decidedly much more rock than country, more boisterous than understated, and more riff-driven than lyric-driven. A fun time in moments for sure, it nonetheless throws back into question who these guys are and what they want to be, with producer Jay Joyce once again falling back on his habits of stoking whatever rock influences he can find in country artists until you’re listening to a rock record with country influences instead of vice versa, which is Joyce’s underlying contribution to the country canon.
The Brothers Osborne are out there bragging this is their arena rock record, and they deliver on this promise for sure. But where some records released in 2020 feel fortuitous in their timing, putting out arena rock during a pandemic is a pretty inopportune roll. They said when Skeletons was first announced, “If you really want to get to know us, this is the record to do it.” Well then apparently ladies and gentlemen, get to know them as a rock band in the country format. Port Saint Joe was the anomaly.
Most of the songs of Skeletons are stylized with crunchy guitar, 4-4 drive, and lyrics more kiltered toward rock sensibilities. Their songwriting collaboration with Hayes Carll on the song “Back On The Bottle” was one of the moments many fans were most looking forward to, but it’s about the perfect example of this country-gone-rock attitude where the record goes wrong. If Hayes had sung and performed this song, the dichotomy and conflict of a sober person getting back on the sauce would be implied beneath the surface, imbuing the track with the poetic nature that has made Hayes Carll a legend. But by plowing forward with the tune as Brothers Osborne do as a party anthem, it’s more a celebration of succumbing to addiction than something that speaks deeper.
But you also can’t deny that Skeletons is a pretty enjoyable listen, including “Back On The Bottle.” And even though both men are skilled enough to render country sounds well, they can handle themselves in the rock realm better than most country bumpkins ever could. No, it’s not country at all, but “All The Good Ones Are” is a pretty seductive rock song hard to scrutinize aside from what genre it’s slotted in at the record store.
At some point, it’s important to make sure you’re not being so uptight about genre, and open your mind and judge music on it’s own merit. In that respect, Skeletons is still pretty alright, and it also starts to improve in the second half. Though it has a pop country feel, “High Note” is a high mark for the record, where the brothers actually pay attention to melody and songwriting on a more granular level, and deliver a classy song.
As a country fan, the sister songs of “Muskrat Greene” and “Dead Man’s Curve” are everything you want Brothers Osborne to be, which is two skilled dudes bringing a rock edge to country, but without sacrificing twang. It’s this kind of material that would make Charlie Daniels proud. That leads into “Make It A Good One,” which once again reminds you of what the brothers are capable of when their priorities are in the right place. It’s not that they’re bad at rock music, it’s that they’re better at making mainstream country that actually means something, and are much more useful and at home there as opposed to trying to boost ticket sales by filling their arsenal with songs they think will sound great through arena rigs.
Like you almost always see on major label country releases, the best song comes last with “Old Man’s Boots,” but it’s a little too late at this point to reconsider the body of work as country, especially with all of the overlayering of production, and these little rhythmic “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” elements Jay Joyce adds to some songs that he thinks makes them “funky,” but just buries any groove.
If Skeletons is the true essence of the Brothers Osborne, that means they’re not really a country duo. But it also means they’re not really that bad. And compared to whatever else you have to contend with out there on the mainstream country radio format, you’d much rather see them out there sticking it to Florida Georgia Line, and offering something actually listenable when the wife, husband, or co-worker switches to the corporate country station.
1 1/4 Guns Up (6.5/10)