Album Review: Zac Brown Band Captures Its Onstage Madness With ‘Jekyll + Hyde’
On the basis of its 13 top 10s on the Hot Country Songs chart prior to Jekyll + Hyde, it's tempting to describe the Zac Brown Band as unreconstructed Southern country-rock. That pun on historical Reconstruction is deliberate, given the Georgia-based group's fondness for larding platitudes on faith and patriotism into its deep-fried tributes to romance and laid-back good times. As a wildly popular live unit that routinely sells out stadiums, though, ZBB earns a tag with much more expansive connotations: jam band. Yes, it's one with roots more in Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Band, gospel and bluegrass than in Phish or The Dead, but it's just as exploratory and genre-bending in its multi-instrumental workouts. The 2013 EP The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 hinted at the band's eagerness to break out of its crate even more, even if its encounter with the Foo Fighters leader's production work ultimately amounted to not much more than cranking the drum volume.
Jekyll + Hyde finds ZBB truly reconstructed on record at last, in more ways than one. The album is a good-faith effort to match or even outstrip the band's onstage eclecticism, and the musical personality shifts help relieve the group's tendency to blandness, providing cover for Brown's dutifully generic, if personable voice. Some longer-standing fans, though, might judge the changes as diabolical as the two-faced Robert Louis Stevenson character that lends the album its name.
The "beware ye who enter" sign is hung by the opener, "Beautiful Drug," which doesn't just flirt with top 40 electronic dance music but checks it into a cheap motel for a quickie. The affair is brisk and forgettable, and soon gives way to more comfy MOR and gospel-rock cuts, but notice has been served. "Mango Tree" offers another twist: While the title suggests a standard ZBB excursion to the Buffett-Chesney realm of Caribbean-accented beach idyll (see past hits "Toes" and "Knee Deep"), it turns out to be a horn-driven, full-steam exercise in retro swing with Sara Bareilles. "Heavy Is the Head" goes much further, enlisting Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell's larynx like a human effects pedal for a Shakespearean (or maybe Game of Thrones-ian) country-grunge hybrid. It brings the heaviness that The Grohl Sessions lacked, even if its lyrical allegories and classic-rock references don't ultimately add up. The other stab at hard rock, "Junkyard," has a sharper focus, on the horrors of domestic abuse, but unfortunately bogs down in seven minutes of sprawl, as stage jams transferred to the studio often do. There's a more potent version on the band's 2010 live album, Pass the Jar.
The merely pleasant lead single "Homegrown" and many other tracks here work The Band's more familiar furrows, with mixed yields: "Bittersweet" poignantly reframes the island-escape trope in terms of mortality and loss, while "Young and Wild" makes for lively nostalgia, thanks in part to its melodic bite from Hall & Oates' "Rich Girl." Still, there's nothing here to equal such previous ZBB standards as "Colder Weather," "Sweet Annie" or "Highway 20 Ride."
Jekyll + Hyde's most welcome departure isn't musical so much as thematic, with its cover of "Dress Blues," Americana artist Jason Isbell's acid-etched portrait of a small-town military funeral. While this grandly arranged version does soften one of Isbell's most pointed lines, it doesn't defang the anti-war protest at the song's core. For any listeners who chafe at ZBB's habitual messages -- don't stress, because life in heartland America is tough but worthwhile, and the rest of the world is just an uncomplicated getaway -- the song marks a gutsy step outside its (as Brad Paisley would say) Southern comfort zone. Now the group will find out how far afield the ZBB fan "Zamily" is willing to follow.
This story originally appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.