Eleven years since the release of their 5x Platinum debut ‘The Foundation’ Zac Brown Band return with their 6th studio offering ‘The Owl’ which they hope will reap the same rewards as their previous releases which resulted in 4 consecutive number 1 albums.
The Grammy, ACM and CMA award winning group in their current line-up of Zac Brown, Clay Cook, Coy Bowles, Chris Fryar, Jimmy De Martini, Daniel de los Reyes, Matt Mangano and John Driskell Hopkins are one of the most talented collectives of musicians you will encounter anywhere on the planet and one of Nashville’s highest regarded live and studio acts where they have the back catalogue and an array of headline shows all over the world to prove this.
‘The Owl’ is the first new record for over 2 years and what is evident to see is how they are a band that are embracing the creativity in what is happening in Nashville right now with the genre opening up and welcoming other influences from across the musical spectrum. Since the release of the band’s last album ‘Welcome Home’ Brown has himself spent some time working on a completely different project called Sir Rosevelt which had more of a focus towards an electronic or dance music sound with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti who were also involved in the creation of the band’s 4th album ‘Jekyl + Hyde’
The premise for ‘The Owl’ enticed the philosophy and direction being inspired by the great horned owl as displayed on the album artwork as it “can see perfectly at night, making it a reliable guide, even during dark times” in a view to delivering a highly personal album drawing from deeper inspiration than previous releases.
Whether people like it or not, things evolve! They change, they adapt and they explore which is exactly what is happening in “country” music right now as the genre is opening up to incorporate different ideas and perspectives across the musical spectrum without trying to be confined into a set of parameters of what something should or shouldn’t be. Above all country music is about the story being told, which is drawn from experiences and relationships so in the modern era people may need to embrace these stories being told slightly differently to the classic image of “country music”
For fans expecting something more as an out and out “country”record similar to ‘The Foundation’ you may be disappointed in what you hear on this record. Remember the band have different perspectives and experiences than they did when their first 2 albums came out. Remember these guys are super talented musicians and Zac especially will catch the eye of artists across the genre spectrum. I saw the guys open up for Bruce Springsteen, they have recorded with Dave Grohl and made a Crossroads special with Shawn Mendes who are all very different musically.
We are always pushing ourselves as musicians by blurring genre boundaries and incorporating all kinds of music we are personally inspired by, elevating what we are capable as a group. This album will have something for everyone, The Owl is exciting, raw, and unexpected.
Through the Sir Rosevelt material it was clear there was a draw to a more pop or commercial EDM (Electronic Dance Music) which over the last 18 months as a genre has catapulted Nashville artists to the forefront of the entire music industry. Following on from Maren Morris, Kane Brown, Cam and Florida Georgia Line having global hits appearing on tracks with Zedd, Marshmello, Diplo and Alesso respectively the opportunity for producers and writers to experiment with a full on tight, incredibly talented band at a greater length could escalate this creativity to a new level.
Historically EDM tracks with live instruments would have the computerised base layer down first with the instruments coming after like the work done by the late Avicii with his tracks with a slight country element. The drive to flipping this process around opens up the endless possibilities of what can be created by writers,musicians and producers alike so to see one of country musics most talented bands take the leap and bring these collaborations as more than a one off is firstly brave given potential animosity from fans and critics alike but pioneering to rip up the genre box completely for a record with such varied perspectives and sounds.
The EDM production aspect was something I spoke about with Caroline Jones back in March at C2C which you can read about HERE. Jones is a featured co-writer on this albums 2nd track ‘Need This’ which also had OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, Andrew DeRoberts and Jason ‘Poo Bear’ Boyd who many people may be more familiar with his work with Justin Bieber who along with Zac himself were the other 4 writers on the track which the 4 of them co-produced.
This is one of the more diverse and creative tracks on the record along with the 3rd track ‘OMW’ which again featured Brown collaborating with Poo Bear but also Sasha Sirota and Skrillex to bring a much more dance incorporated sound than the rest of the record.
Track’s like ‘The Woods’ ‘Warrior’ and the song written with the other members of Sir Rosevelt and Shawn Mendes ‘Someone I Used to Know’ reach more of a happy medium that bring a balance of country infused commercially friendly tracks similar to some of the recent big crossover hits.
EDM (which almost feels a way of tainting the sound as that seems to be how people want to describe this infusion which a number of people more traditionally focused may not be too keen on) and country are not the only musical sounds you are hearing which shows that it is not merely an experimental record in a specific sound. ‘God Given’ and ‘Already On Fire’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic Kidd Rock or Red Hot Chili Peppers album.
All that being said there is definitely a lot there for lovers of what the band have done previously. There is a strong sense of contemporary country whilst still retaining traditional elements on the albums other tracks. There is the stunning ‘Finish What We Started’ featuring the beautiful vocals of Brandi Carlile which Brown collaborated with an array of interesting and fascinating co-writers to create which again was produced by Poo Bear along with Max Martin who is one of the most influential writers and producers in pop music having previously worked with Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry and Britney Spears. This is evidence alone that the addition of different influences can still retain your traditional country country sound on every level.
This along with ‘Me and the Boys in the Band’ ‘Shoofly Pie’ and ‘Leaving Love Behind’ are more tracks that people may typically associate with the band which all again create a nice balance to show this is not a concept album and that they are still true to their roots as a country band but want to embrace their creative ideas and influences across a wider spectrum.
I evidently am a fan of this record and the more that the genre can embrace different ideas to bring sounds to a wider audience the better. I am pretty sure die hard U2, Bon Jovi or Oasis fans have a favourite album from their back catalogues which in a lot of cases will be an earlier release but they didn’t keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and release identical albums as things EVOLVE or change over time. I genuinely think this record is brave because it will not be to all of their fans tastes but at the same time pioneering as I think more and more artists will begin to work with different producers and writers from across the spectrum to ensure this. There is enough quote/unquote country on this record for some reluctant fans to give it a try but also an opportunity to fully see the potential direction artists in Nashville can take their music to!