Album Review: Zac Brown Band ‘Uncaged’

The Zac Brown Band has a reputation for putting out simple, polished country music, and for doing a bit of genre hopping in their own rather controlled way. They have had tremendous success with this formula, and are credited with helping to advance country music as a whole.

Which strikes me as odd, because the band really hasn’t brought a lot to the table. They’re great at putting together a catchy song, don’t get me wrong, but it’s always done by the book, and when they explore areas of music beyond their base of strength this is only more evident.

As for this particular album, the name Uncaged seems about as far removed from reality as you might get. It’s a very formulaic record, and it definitely does not push or even approach any boundaries of music. In the past they have at least attempted to innovate, but here they are not only caged, but shackled and tied down with a very narrow scope of polite, often pandering music.

The opener, ‘Jump Right In’, is a celebratory song with a timeless feeling, but not in the way you might expect. That timeless sound is more easily related to children’s music than anything else, and there is immediately a sense about this record of being designed specifically for kids. I’m almost completely sure that is not intentional, but it calls to question what they really think of their audience. ‘Uncaged’ seems slightly more sophisticated, with a churning guitar riff and a rock organ, but it maintains the kiddy feeling, and this is something that sticks with the record all the way through.

‘Island Song’ is simultaneously the best and worst track on the album. It’s catchy as all hell, which is the good part, but it’s also insultingly direct, and it just ends up feeling silly– in a very Rebecca Black sort of way. Zac Brown sings in a strange reggae style about tiki bars and steel drums over a cliché Caribbean soundscape, and it almost seems like it has to be a joke. Raise your hands, kids, if you’ve heard about islands before– very good!

I probably shouldn’t fault the band for being extremely positive, and that’s where a lot of the children’s-entertainment vibe is coming from. It’s a great album to put on for a pick-me-up, assuming you can handle a healthy dose of cheese, but more cynical individuals will only find themselves filled with ire for the record, completely unable to take it seriously.

‘Overnight’ is another apparent misfire, in an awkward attempt to fuse country with sexy, sultry R&B. It sounds incredibly dated, and does not come across as genuine at all. It’s like listening in on an awkward virgin trying to talk dirty for the first time, and there is a reason most of us opt not to record and share these milestones in our lives.

The album sort of pulls together near the end, turning to less ambitious song types with which the band seems to be more at home. By this stage, though, I had been so bathed in cheese that it became difficult to take these pretty little moments at face value. Your mileage may vary.

The Zac Brown Band are real masters of the art of crafting songs with a tried and tested formula, and their prowess as a jam band should never be in doubt. In a way they actually do break convention simply by taking country music into genres it does not often visit, though perhaps there is a reason for that. In any case, this is a record that will appeal to those who want a simple, passive experience with music, or just a good time. For the slightly more particular listener it’s almost personally offensive.

Release Date: July 3, 2012
Image Courtesy of Southern Ground/Atlantic