Last month, the hip-hop world exploded when Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg dismissed Nicki Minaj’s single “Starships” as inauthentic, “not real” hip-hop. Minaj then backed out of a headlining slot at 2012’s Summer Jam, hosted by the radio station where Rosenberg is a regular host. Jon Caramanica, pop critic at the New York Times, immediately came to the defense of Minaj, arguing that “to reject ‘Starships’ is to reject the idea of hip-hop as a big tent with room for multiple ideas and micromovements and polarities.”
Like hip-hop, contemporary country can be far more accepting, flexible, and encompassing than it may appear. Enter the Zac Brown Band, and Uncaged, their highly anticipated third studio album. Uncaged is a fitting title for the wide-reaching textures that make up the Georgia group’s latest record, and it does an elegant job showing off the Zac Brown Band as the fine-tuned genre-hopping band they’ve become. But many of the songs that work the best won’t come as a surprise to fans: “Goodbye In Her Eyes” and “Sweet Annie” are standard fodder for the group, matching sophisticated vocal harmonies with a sensitivity Brown owes to James Taylor, amongst other ’70s singer-songwriters.
What makes Uncaged compelling is that it’s just as interested in upholding and reassuring the typically rigid genre convictions in contemporary country as it is interested in defying and bending them. Sometimes, you get both in one song: “The Wind” is a classic barn-burner, so much so that it ends up sounding little like the pop balladry that so often dominates the country charts. During the bridge, Brown and company channel the Avett Brothers, another country-bending group with a fondness for bluegrass’ relentless tempo, as they harmonize on a fluttering vocal melody when Brown sings “love don’t lie-ay-ay, we can fly-ay-ay.” He briefly reprises the melody a few songs later on the somber tribute “Lance’s Song”, as if to say that there are still tricks to learn from groups that sell less records, or maybe just that there’s a whole lot less separating the Zac Brown Band and the Avett Brothers than roots music purists might care to admit.
It’s “your basic country Southern rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record,” Brown has joked of Uncaged. And if there’s anything at fault with Brown’s latest, it’s the trap of lapsing into self-satisfaction with the way in which the band defies labeling. That may mean a genre exercise that falls flat, like the R&B Marvin Gaye pastiche “Overnight”. Or, genre meddling actually ends up forcing the band the furthest away from its far reaching, crossover potential and back into the narrow confines of Music Row-controlled country, like in “Island Song”, where Brown convinces himself that a faux-Jamaican accent and a generic reggae beat is license enough to evoke the open arms of “People Get Ready” when he sings “you don’t need no invitation, no,” a line as off-putting as it is false.
The problem, of course, is that “Island Song” is the catchiest tune on Uncaged. That goes to show that the Zac Brown Band are quite capable of writing a viable, pleasing tune that does little to challenge or bend the country charts, which is to say that if anything, the band makes their mark with Uncaged by proving that country often sounds the most like itself when borrowing, toying, and playing around with unexpected sounds, noises, and influences. The Zac Brown Band’s music is about inclusion, about feeling welcome towards a world of music that may at times feel inflexible to outsiders. Country: it can be a big tent, too.
Essential Tracks: “The Wind”