Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Maria Jean Sullivan and Caitlin Carter chat about Zac Brown Band's new album Jekyll + Hyde. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: If Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways was an exploration of American rock cities, then Dave Grohl's buddy Zac Brown and his Zac Brown Band decided to explore American musical genres here on Jekyll + Hyde. The album title is very fitting -- there are at least 12 totally different musical stylings on this 16-song collection. Will ZBB be country on a song? folk? Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga? electronic DJs? Jimmy Buffett? There are so many clashing personalities here -- let's try and make sense of it all!
Caitlin Carter: Yes, Jekyll + Hyde really is a fitting title. I never completely put ZBB in the straightforward country lane as they've always had a rock/folk influence, but this album is really out there. And you know what? I liked a lot of it.
I loved the Pink Floyd sampling and I teared up when they incorporated the military "Taps" in "Dress Blues" --- which I swear consists of the saddest notes ever because it always makes me cry. I think that Foo Fighters collaboration on Sonic Highways really seeped into this record as two of the songs sound like they could be Foo tracks. It also gave us the Mumford & Sons sound that we aren't getting anymore from the original band. I honestly think that somehow that Jimmy Buffett-channeling track will be a hit this summer just because there haven't been new songs like that in a while. So much to dissect!
Maria Jean Sullivan: So here's the thing, right: I'm from Upstate New York where the general population is either tuned to 107.3 WRWD, the country haven, or K104 your basic pop, hip-hop, Top 40 hits station. And when I first heard about Zac Brown Band it was from friends and family members who are religiously tuned to one or the other of the aforementioned stations but never, ever both! And I so love that. Jeykll + Hyde is the perfect metaphor for that crossover, too. There are so many genres on this LP that will easily marry 107.3 and K104 by summer's end, in a down home, romantic yet cultured and sophisticated ceremony. And that Foo Fighters Nashville episode really nailed ZBB's ability to dip into different genre pools.
CM: What's interesting about Zac Brown Band is that they've yet to have a huge crossover hit with that Top 40 play. Given, unless you're Florida Georgia Line with Nelly (what up, Nelly!), that's going to be a rarity in the 2010s musical landscape. Actually, ZBB got its first crossover hit with this album "Heavy Is the Head" featuring Chris Cornell is getting tons of mainstream rock radio play. And that apparently hasn't happened since Bon Jovi in the '80s.
I don't, like, personally know Zac Brown, but I don't know if ZBB is too terribly concerned with pop music success. They're HUGE in country with three platinum albums and sold-out arena tours. However, the band still see themselves as "outsiders" within the genre. I think Jekyll + Hyde is out to explore that.
Yeah, there are some country radio-friendly singles here. "Homegrown," "Dress Blues," and "Loving You Easy" are not stretches for this band or for the genre as a whole. Really, anyone could have done them (and "Dress Blues" was originally by my personal favorite country singer Jason Isbell).
But, then you have something like "Mango Tree" or "Tomorrow Never Comes," and you just have to wonder WHAT they were thinking. I believe they were just out to experiment and see what people grab onto and see how far they can push the boundaries without, like, getting dropped by their label. This is apparently what experimental country sounds like.
CC: I feel like country artists are never in the same sentence as experimental music, so what ZBB is doing here is pretty noteworthy. Even though "Tomorrow Never Comes" was unexpected, I really liked it. It starts like a typical country track, then moves into the driving banjo Mumford & Sons sound on the hook before infusing it all with eastern-sounding synth, and somehow it worked really well, at least in my opinion. I was also a fan of "Junkyard." It feels very Phish or Umphrey's McGee to me with that rock, meets psychedelia, meets bluegrass sound. I also really like "Heavy Is the Head" and am not surprised to hear that it's been getting some radio play.
Being from Missouri, I always used to go down to the Lake of the Ozarks, basically the Midwestern's version of a beach town, so I've always had a soft spot for Jimmy Buffett-esque, easy-living cheesiness, so I was down with "Castaway."
Although I wasn't particularly a fan, I can definitely see "Beautiful Drug" becoming like a "Hey Brother"/"Wake Me Up" sort of cross-over club number.
"Mango Tree," though really was out of left field. I really can't quite understand that choice. It's a good enough jazz number, but I think it throws off the album more than the other unexpected songs.
Those were my initial thoughts on the tracks. What about you Maria?
MJS: I'm not super into country music in general. I barely have a working knowledge of artists and their corresponding albums. But again because of my upbringing I do have a grand sense of the country culture and lifestyle. Seems to me there are two kinds of country songs: the sad, biographical life event story and the nightlife, back porch foot stomping party down twang. ZBB touches on these perfectly for his longstanding fan base in Celtic and gospel fueled track "Remedy", "Homegrown" and "Wildfire".
I have no idea what is going on with "Mango Tree" with Sara Bareilles but I certainty dig it. Sonically, it's light years away from the both of them, but it's put together so impressively well. It messes with the cohesion of the album when trying to listen straight through but I love this track and am happy they recorded it. That brass section, doe!
Same with "Heavy Is the Head" featuring Chris Cornell, who is basically the guy you want to call to record a darker, more late '90s alt-rock track. Nice going, ZBB.
CM: Experimental country is really not a phrase you hear, like, ever. So I appreciate what Zac Brown Band was doing here. I actually enjoy country music (byproduct of going to college in Appalachia), so I enjoyed the more true country songs the most. While not wholly original, "Homegrown" is just that stereotypical Southern anthem, and I can appreciate that. I also think the guitar work is quite epic on it -- I love the way it soars. I like "Wildfire" for the same reasons -- it's one of the more straightforward country tracks, but that's what ZBB does best.
As far as the other genre explorations. "Mango Tree" is this weird stick out for me, and I cannot for the life of me decide if I love it or hate it. I think I lean more toward the latter; Brown is not Michael Buble and the whole thing comes off as a little swarmy without that added rich, deep texture that true crooners have. I'm much more receptive to the grunge numbers on Jekyll + Hyde. I also love Eric Church's rule-breaking country album The Outsiders, so when Zac Brown Band teams up with Chris Cornell or gets gritty on "Junkyard," I can really get down with that outlaw country. Banjo + sludgy electric guitars = always a win for Carolyn.
I think what we can all agree on (probably?) is that all the experimentation leads to what may be one of the least cohesive albums I've heard this year. It's not like this is a rollercoaster of good and bad, it's just a crazy mixtape curated by someone who loves country roots but also decided to throw in some weird zingers here and there. It's a bizarre listening experience. I wish they had released this as a series of EPs or singles or something -- that would make more logical sense.
CC: Since I've mentioned what I liked, I will criticize the album for being all over the place. I am always of the opinion that you make an album to be cohesive then you throw out singles here and there. The album also ran a bit long, so those outliers could've been cut down. I also agree with Carolyn about "Mango Tree." I like that he can make a song like that work, but when you have so much else to offer musically, I think you can leave the jazzier stuff to the crooners or keep it for a solo effort. Any other criticisms you guys have?
MJS: So apparently Jewel provides vocals on that cover of Jason Isbell's "Dress Blues" which also features an Aerosmith-esque guitar solo a few verses before those saddest-tunes-ever you mention, Caitlin. And speaking of 1990's alt-rock, did you catch that Guns 'N' Roses "Sweet Child of Mine" reference on "I'll Be Your Man (Song For A Daughter)" at the 3:43 mark? A sad-happy track there again that crescendos into a magical rainbow after the storm. Between "I'll Be Your Man (Song For A Daughter)" and "Bittersweet", a track about a dying loved one and the ripple effects of the loss, I am basically in tears at the office.
Sobby sob sob.
Anywho- with all these sonic references and literal collabs, this LP is a melting pot of the modern music scene. I have to agree with you Caitlin, to some extent. I stand by "Mango Tree" as being a brilliant cut, but it doesn't belong on an album. Would have made for a cool, off the cuff single. And it's sure to shine live. But "Mango Tree", especially being book-ended with country classic "Homegrown" and dingy rock "Heavy Is the Head" it makes for an awkward listen. It is for sure more of a playlist to me.
To be honest that is my only real complaint. ZBB are a talented bunch and clearly there is not denying that, especially now with Jekyll + Hyde. But hey, maybe that'why they chose such a title.
CM: Now we're throwing Guns N Roses in to some dobro?! Jekyll + Hyde really does have everything!
But, you're right Maria, the sequencing is really off on this album, and maybe that's why "Mango Tree" doesn't have me singing along. I mean, given, making this album work for one, complete listening sequence is nearly impossible. I will say I do not envy whoever had that job here. How do you fit "Heavy Is the Hand," "Dress Blues," "Mango Tree" and "Castaway" all on one album? It literally makes no sense. It would maybe work thematically if one song was classic ZBB ("Homegrown") then one was way out of left field (basically any of the songs I mentioned) then country again, but the tracking seems pretty arbitrary from that point of view.
There are beautiful nuggets of music on this album and some really interesting expansions on what country music can be. One of you mentioned that this album will shine live, and I definitely agree with that. But for a full album experience? Nah. Imma pull my favorites out, add them to my best-of 2015 playlist and just try and forget "Mango Tree" exists.
CC: They even threw in a bluegrass snippet of Pink Floyd's "Is There Anybody Out There" on "Junkyard," which was pretty awesome. This album definitely recalls more of a live, meandering show. They could probably perform this whole album through live, and the show would feel varied enough. You've got your covers, your cover interludes/bridges, your country jams and genre-blending gems -- a pretty solid live package.
MJS: Caitlin, I was actually thinking the same thing. If they put this out as a live album, I'm sure they would not be receiving so much press about the disjointed tracklist. It would just seem right, natural. But as a piece of, say, original content, it's not cohesive.
I actually had to give "Junkyard" a second listen to hear the Floyd reference but there it is, right near the bumbling banjo and epic guitar shredding. Coincidentally enough, it's a track about an abusive father and husband, the Junkyard Man, and his son who eventually takes a knife and his fathers life into his own hands.
Jekyll + Hyde is all over the place. We've even got bagpipes on "Remedy". Makes me think, you get bored or what, Zac?
CC: J+H was a really cool experiment in how far you can push the boundaries of country music. There were definitely more hits than misses, but overall the album just wasn't a cohesive piece despite all of that talent. When all is said and done, though, the main test is the stage, and I think the album will fare well live.
CM: Like I said, I really appreciate ZBB trying to push the envelope, I think sometimes the envelope pushing still all needs to fit int he same package. When it came to Jekyll + Hyde, that did not happen. This album would have been better expanded, as standalone singles or EPs. I praise the experimentation, just not the delivery. I like giving grades, so I deem J+H a B-.
MJS: Nice grading system there. Yea I can't stand by this album as a whole and say it's top tier but the tracks as individuals, their creativity and well, spunk, that I can stand by. I'm coming around to country more and more these days. But maybe that's because country is coming around to me more and more via jazz, blues, funk, EDM, Caribbean jangle and just plain rock and roll infusions. I give 100+ points on creativity and not nearly as many for cohesiveness, Zac.