Uncaged may be the product of studio recording sessions, but it pulses with the energy of a live set.
That much is evident right from the bongo drums and whistle hook that open the album on “Jump Right In.” Immediately afterward, the title track lays down a heavy arena-rock groove that was obviously made for a live setting. Needless to say, the band’s eclectic musical stylings will not suit every listener’s personal taste, while traditionalist country music fans will find relatively little to celebrate on this record. Regardless, it remains obvious that, of all the bands currently in heavy rotation on country radio, few are as fully developed as an actual band as Brown and his cohorts.
Yet Uncaged would not be the success that it is if not for the high quality of Brown’s songwriting, consistently characterized by unaffected sincerity, straightforwardness, and naturalness of flow. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” begins with the line “I could tell that it was over when her lips met mine/ It was an emptiness in her voice, hesitation when she smiled” and heads from there to “She’d found what she’d been looking for, and I knew it wasn’t me,” while the backing instruments swell with a rising sense of urgency, making the track a clear standout in lyrical construction as well as overall song structure.
The weakest track on the album is called – wait for it – “Island Song,” and sounds like just about every other “island song” pervading country music. It generally brings nothing new to the tiki bar, save for a painfully affected fake Jamaican accent on Brown’s part, while the aforementioned “Jump Right In” draws on similar reggae influences, but does so with a greater level of personality. Likewise, “Sweet Annie” is a solid song on its own merits, but one that sounds a little too much like a retread of last year’s hit “Colder Weather,” both lyrically and melodically.
Lead single and current Top 20 hit “The Wind” is easily one of the best and coolest-sounding singles to make it to radio airwaves this year. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that scans unmistakably as country music, but one that nods to genre conventions without compromising the band’s distinct sense of identity. The band taps into a smooth jazz vibe with the Trombone Shorty collaboration “Overnight” – a sultry come-on lyric that could have scanned as embarrassingly campy if delivered through a lesser performance, but one that Brown manages to sell with infectious gusto.
While the band’s influences run the gamut from Alan Jackson to the Eagles to Jimmy Buffett to Bob Marley – and this album alone includes collaborations with Amos Leigh, Sonia Leigh, and Jason Mraz - Uncaged still manages to sound first and foremost like a Zac Brown Band album. The effortless charm of Brown’s singing and songwriting, not to mention the energy of the band’s musicianship, creates a common unifying thread that runs throughout all the genre styles experimented with through the course of the set.
It’s consistently clear that, according to the Zac Brown Band’s musical approach, it’s not about genres. It’s not about radio formats. It’s not about pleasing one’s chosen demographic. It’s about music, plain and simple. As a result, Uncaged is an unshakably confident, ambitious-sounding record that refuses to condescend to its listeners, and it thus may be just the thing to impart a shot of authenticity to mainstream country music.
The countdown continues. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments!
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21
Individual Rankings: #5 – Jonathan
It’s not for nothing that Tammy Wynette once claimed that Shelby Lynne had the best voice in country music, but, as Lynne has become increasingly subdued in the latter half of her career, she’s rarely explored the full range of her vocal talent. So when she unleashes that voice for the first time in a decade during the coda of “Revelation Road,” it may not be revelatory, but it sure is a most welcome return. – Jonathan Keefe
My Name is Money
Individual Rankings: Ben – #4
A clever lyrical personification of the Almighty Dollar. Sonia Leigh tears into the song with her gritty, powerful vocals while the snappy, genre-blending arrangement gives the single added spunk and sass. “My Name Is Money” is a delicious sonic confection from one of the 2011’s most dynamic and promising new talents. – Ben Foster
God Only Knows
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #11; Tara – #14
Why? Because she can sing, and she nails a song that’s great to begin with. It’s not quite Lorrie Morgan singing “Don’t Worry Baby”, but it’s close. – Kevin John Coyne
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Individual Rankings: #3 – Sam
One of the unlikeliest catchy songs of the year came from Jason Isbell. Sure, the content of the song is heartbreaking, but try listening to it and not singing along with “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine.”- Sam Gazdziak
Ghost on the Canvas
Individual Rankings: #10 – Kevin; #12 – Dan
Staring down his mortality, Campbell imparts a final message: Find me again in what I’ve left behind. In Campbell’s case – or Van Gogh’s, whose Wheatfield with Crows is referenced here – the remnants may be works of art. Others will have different sorts of canvases. One thing is universal: though most of the world will never see them, the ghosts will emerge for those who need them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #5 – Kevin; #17 – Dan
Why? Because he can sing, and he sounds rejuvenated to be doing it as a solo artist. It’s a great song, but in lesser hands, it would’ve been sappy. – Kevin John Coyne
Mumford & Sons
Individual Rankings: #5- Sam; #16 – Leeann
Pop radio has managed to incorporate Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift singles, to give just a couple examples. So would it kill country radio to add Mumford & Sons to the airwaves? Between Marcus Mumford’s hopeful lyrics (“But I will hold on hope/And I won’t let you choke/On the noose around your neck”) and Country Winston’s banjo, this song begged to be a crossover hit. – Sam Gazdziak
Very few artists could turn a borderline-trite hook into an invigorating anthem fit for the dance hall. Even fewer could do it so accessibly yet commandingly that you want to drop what you’re doing and have a Moonshine in his honor. Bottoms up, King George. – Tara Seetharam
When Wanda Jackson sings, “I’m wonderin’ where in the world could Jerry Lee be,” on her fantastic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” Jack White’s on-point rockabilly arrangement makes it sound like Jerry Lee Lewis himself is playing in Jackson’s ace backing band. Though her voice may have lost some of its punch, Jackson’s delivery on “Thunder on the Mountain” finds the Queen of Rockabilly as feisty as ever. – Jonathan Keefe
You Gonna Fly
Individual Rankings: #8 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan
Urban strips the title phrase of all its pomposity but retains its punch with an assured, coolly confident performance. The song’s kicker, though, is the way it handles love’s ability to “fly us” to another plane, spiritually and emotionally, with matter-of-fact breeziness. “One, two, three / Baby don’t think twice / Just like that you got a brand new life” – how refreshingly uncomplicated. – Tara Seetharam