As an unkempt, self-contained septet conquering country's clean-cut, studio-musician world, Zac Brown Band are easy to root for. But the band's third LP, Uncaged, sounds, well, caged: plenty of polite back-porch bluegrass picking, antiseptic mountain harmonies, a pair of lowcalorie attempts at Caribbean lilt with mushily sentimental lyrics about drifting like the river and the wind. Listen to "Colder Weather": Related• Photos: Random Notes .
Zac Brown Band’s third major-label album, Uncaged, has very little to do with country music in any meaningful sense. But if modern country wants to embrace a genuinely talented band whose members can sing and play with both skill and conviction, write memorable hooks without pandering to their audience, and project an effortless charm instead of a perverse authenticity fetish, then who am I to complain? What impresses most about Uncaged is the extent to which it captures Zac Brown Band’s growth as an honest-to-God band. Even at their most improvisational, as on the instrumental breaks that punctuate the title track and the breakneck B section of “Natural Disaster,” their arrangements are airtight and performed with brio.
In a sense, it's possible to measure the progress of the Zac Brown Band by the magnitude of their guest stars. In 2010, they consolidated the breakthrough of 2008's Foundation by enlisting Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson for duets -- elders whose very presence suggested they were passing a torch (although, to be sure, Buffett has a far greater pull on Brown's sound than Jackson). Two years later, it is the Zac Brown Band who occupy the power position, drafting in peers, not idols, to play alongside.
Zac Brown Hates country fans who aren’t really all that country. At least that’s what the multi-platinum-selling frontman implies on ”Lance’s Song,” a tribute to the late Atlanta drummer Lance Tilton. ”His drums drowned out the yuppies,” Brown sings about his friend, and for these Georgia good ol’ boys, that’s high praise. Having spent a decade on the road developing his rep as a grassroots hero with songs about getting barefoot and drinking homemade wine, Brown doesn’t want his music blasting from any PT Cruisers.
At this point in their career, with a pair of platinum albums, a hit live record, and enough Top Five country hits to fill a best-of collection, the Zac Brown Band has grown accustomed to dealing with the weight of expectations — so much so that the title of their fifth full-length, Uncaged, could be read as a winking aside to fans afraid they’ll start tinkering with their eclectic chart-topping formula, or as a warning to country purists who don’t appreciate the band’s willingness to color outside the genre lines. Neither camp will have its expectations challenged by this 11-song set, which lives up to Brown’s half-joking assertion that it’s “your basic country Southern rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record” while never coming anywhere near the unbridled experimentation it implies. More than anything, Uncaged is an album that proves a successful country artist really can have it all — that it’s possible to tastefully blend the sensitive singer/songwriter tropes of Laurel Canyon artists like James Taylor, the faux Caribbean pandering of Jimmy Buffett, the deeply felt roots excursions of the Avett Brothers, and the smartly crafted pop concessions of Jason Mraz (who co-pens the leadoff track, “Jump Right In”).
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.