The guys from Zac Brown Band are no stranger to success, having placed eight #1 singles in the US country charts and picking up the Grammy for Best Country Album for their 2012 record, Uncaged. I have to admit, their formidable reputation as a country band had me delve into their new album Jekyll + Hyde with certain expectations as to what I was in for.
Well howdy-doo, was I wrong to do that! The album kicks off in strong country style, Zac Brown’s crisp vocals leading the sweet melody over strumming acoustic guitar on the first chorus in Beautiful Drug. But when the second chorus hits, it’s like sitting in an underground bar listening to the band on stage only to have the walls and ceiling lifted to reveal that you are in fact in the middle of a pumping, sold out stadium show. The addition of synths, emotive ‘Whoah-oh-oh’s and a pulsing dance beat transforms the track into a massive feel-good anthem.
Things settle into more familiar territory including two of the album’s singles. The stripped back, short and sweet Loving You Easy and more classic country-rock of Homegrown are separated by the folk blend of Remedy which features gospel-style backing vocals and traditional Celtic-sounding instrumentation. Then, that familiar territory disappears from beneath your feet: Enter Mr. Hyde.
The album’s title aptly describes the listening experience. You’ve got straight, respectable Jekyll representing the band’s more traditional sound, but a number of tracks on the album seem so far removed from this paradigm that the band takes up a completely different personality. And there are definitely a couple of instances where Hyde makes his presence known. The duet, Mango Tree, which features Sara Bareilles, transports you to the Roaring Forties in NYC as Zac Brown croons in front of what is now his big band. Hyde then goes to the next level as the band launches into the final single Heavy Is The Head, a grungy rock number that accommodates another guest vocalist – Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.
The album continues in this sort of fluctuating manner. Other note-worthy instances of the band trying (and pulling off!) new sounds are the chilled, soul-infused One Day, Castaway played on island-time, and the seven minute Junkyard which has taken the acoustic guitar part from Pink Floyd’s Is There Anybody Out There? to complement the song’s heavy lyrical subject matter about an abusive home environment. It also provides balance against the distorted guitar and makes the song’s transformation into a progressive rock sound more pronounced. The album’s scattered with a number of strong country tracks though, from lyrical and melodical emphasis in the mournful Bittersweet, to fingerlickin’ fingerpickin’ and uplifting harmonies in Tomorrow Never Comes.
After listening to Jekyll + Hyde, I’m inspired to give the Zac Brown Band’s back catalogue more of a listen. While I was taken by surprise by the musical direction of a number of tracks, this led to an engaging listening experience and I really enjoyed their brand of contemporary country rock with crisp, powerful vocals and an emphasis on layered instrumentation.