Zac Brown Band’s much-anticipated new release Uncaged has a title that is surprisingly appropriate; it’s as though the band has said, “F*** it—we’re not gonna be caged by country music anymore.” The resulting album is one of the riskiest efforts released by a “country” act (I use that term loosely) so far this year.
To be honest, I think if any band could pull this off, it’s this one. Zac Brown Band has one of those happy stories in which the band found success simply by getting together and doing the stuff—as in, playing up to 200 tour dates a year for two years before even releasing a record. This is a band with one of the strongest work ethics in music, and as a result, if there’s one thing they know, it’s how to play together. Ever since the band started, they’ve skirted the line between country and southern-fried rock; now with Uncaged, they’ve pushed the envelope of their sound in a way that would cause any other band to lose their identity—but they manage to hold it together, if for no other reason than they know how to play as a band, above all else.
Indeed, you have to listen all the way to track four (“The Wind”) to hear anything that remotely sounds like country. The opening track “Jump Right In” kicks off with a decidedly Caribbean feel (a tip-o-the-hat to Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett), followed up by Southern-rockin’ title track “Uncaged.” Catchy, yes; country—no. The genre-bending—or more like, genre-hopping—continues into adult contemporary (“Goodbye In Her Eyes,”) and sultry R&B (“Overnight”), while “Island Song” takes the Caribbean flavor all the way into reggae.
That being said, Zac Brown Band has not strayed completely away from their country roots, serving up some excellent examples like “The Wind,” “Natural Disaster” and “Lance’s Song,” and closing with the solid “Last But Not Least,” as if to say, “Hey, we’re breaking out of the cage, but we’re not running away from who we are.”
I mentioned that this is a risky album. The question is—does it work?
Yeah, kind of. Despite being all over the board genre-wise, the two things that tie it all together are catchy melodies and excellent musicianship—plus a few dynamite solos thrown into the mix to keep things interesting. The album is musically diverse to a fault, but at least the musicality keeps it cohesive. And indeed, it’s worth mentioning that from a strictly musical standpoint, Uncaged is the band’s strongest effort thus far. Without that element, I think it would have fallen absolutely flat.
That being the case, if I had any say in the matter, I would not have advised Zac Brown Band to make this record, simply because the risk isn’t worth the payoff. Do they pull it off? Sort of—and certainly better than most other bands could. But it really does nothing, in my view, to advance their career. They made it work this time, but if they pull this kind of stunt again, it could hurt them rather than help them.
So, okay, Zac Brown Band has proved their point; they’re Uncaged. They can play just about anything—we get it. But what will they play in the future that will actually continue to define them and move them forward?
And while I’m asking questions, I might as well ask the nagging question on everyone’s mind: How does Zac Brown avoid heat stroke wearing that stocking cap all the time?
ALBUM RATING: 3 Stars (out of five)