ZAC BROWN’S JEKYLL+HYDE IS A DECLARATION OF MUSICAL INDEPENDENCE
Zac Brown is a musician and a businessman. He makes an album like he’s building a business. He already has a solid team behind him in the Zac Brown Band. On this project, he added some new partners to his Southern Ground team – Republic Records, Big Machine Label Group, and John Varvatos, among a host of other talented people who assisted. Their lending of support on the project was a risk of venture capital. Zac’s track record in both business and music related things makes this a worthwhile risk on a solid reputation. His long-term growth potential is enormous, and the trump card Zac has beyond experience and sweat equity, is guts. JEKYLL+HYDE was a risk. Country fans may decide it’s too big a departure from Southern Ground’s roots to embrace it fully. Music listeners outside the country circle may question its authenticity and not give it a chance. The key to this being a successful venture is whether or not the market will support great music over genre bias. Every genre of music has had its groundbreakers. This Southern Groundbreaker deserves his day.
The idea of Jekyll and Hyde denotes a split personality. What comes to mind is opposite manifestations occupying the same body. Zac’s putting the two together in the form of an equation – JEKYLL+HYDE – indicates there is a sum of those opposing parts. Zac Brown is a songwriter in addition to his many talents. He co-wrote every song on this album except “Dress Blues.” Country music was built on telling stories that resonate and there is no departure from that standard on this record. It’s the framework that supports the unique interpretation of the decades in music that built Zac Brown. It says to me that he can tell a story in the tradition of country music and use multi-layered harmonies and instrumentation to illustrate it. Add to that, the production work on this is extraordinary. In an extreme departure from the monochromatic schemes most albums have become, JEKYLL+HYDE risks a playlist format. This doesn’t shuffle within the same brand on any level. It creates its own and stamps Zac Brown Band on its unique creation. If you love music, this is an odyssey.
Zac Brown Band is known for their tight harmonies, robust instrumentation, and attention to detail in the process of making music. Everything Zac does has a purpose, and it isn’t sleight of hand. On JEKYLL+HYDE, he turned that intent up a notch. The multilayered instrumentation, complex combinations, and unusual instruments that were used to produce such inventive sounds, is a revolution in sound engineering. Why this all works is a credit to the talented musicians who make up this band, Zac’s vision, and a top notch production team. What they accomplished on this album could likely not be duplicated by anyone else. Think of them as the test drive young Joel took in Risky Business. His analysis: “Porsche (or ZBB). There is no substitute.” What you hear when you listen to these songs will depend on how you relate to the music of that decade or genre. Music is not right or wrong. It’s simply a creative interpretation of an artist’s journey. Your view will be uniquely your own, as mine is. I made notes as I listened to each song, kind of like a travelogue of the places this music takes me. Each track takes me to a different place in time based on my journey. Here are my notes. Feel free to make your own.
01- BEAUTIFUL DRUG……The instrumental intro to this called to mind the music from the 1983 film, Risky Business, when Joel and Lana were on a deserted Chicago ‘L’ train, uh, making their own music. This one took me to the 80s and the sound of hair bands. “Lipstick and heels,” perhaps without the spandex.
02- LOVING YOU EASY……Heard a hint of The Jackson 5 when this one started with a groove that danced its way into the discos of the 70s and the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. When Zac goes high on “Oh, I wanna sing it again,” he’s met with a powerful chorus that celebrates the love he’s found.
03-REMEDY……This one begins with a Celtic instrumental that hints of going to church well before it hits those powerful gospel harmonies and an Amen in the lyrics. Zac sings that “Love is the remedy,” and to further drive home his point, the line, “God is love one another,” is printed in bright yellow in the liner notes. Amen to that!
04-HOMEGROWN……The first single released from the album and hallmark ZBB. This is country music from the place he feels closest to it – home. You can feel the southern sun and smell the Georgia pines in this one. Listen closely for the banjo.
05- MANGO TREE……This is the most surprising song on the album, unless you were expecting Zac to go Big Band era. It’s Satchmo and Ella and Frank with Fred and Ginger dancing across the stage and Duke tickling the ivories. “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Sara Bareilles gives Zac the assist on this one.
06- HEAVY IS THE HEAD……Chris Cornell of Soundgarden is featured here, and rightfully so, as Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label. In the spirit of 90s grunge, Zac offers this guitar driven beast, possibly with a touch of Deep Purple. “Night falls, smoke on the water,” is part of the lyrics.
07- BITTERSWEET……From 90s grunge to a violin instrumental opening, this is nearly an acoustic offering, with just a touch of percussion in the distance until it nears the end. Heavy-handed instrumentation disrupts the mellow mood before fading back to acoustic tone. It’s folk rock from the singer-songwriter era with a nod to James Taylor.
08- CASTAWAY……A possible tribute to one of ZBB’s hit songs, “Toes.” The ukulele in this gives it that authentic island feel. “Reggae on the radio” and in the music here. The full-bodied choral ending with multilayered vocals adds an island spice to this fun song.
09- TOMORROW NEVER COMES……This starts out as a racy acoustic number that mirrors a folk tune. Suddenly you’re Alice in Wonderland falling down a rabbit hole with EDM piped into it. Recovering somewhat, you’re hit with violin and banjo music that becomes an all out spiritual chorus. The strength of the instrumentation here is spectacular and serves to lift up the message of the lyrics. “I’m gonna live, Like tomorrow never comes.”
10-ONE DAY……One day back in the 60s is where this goes. The Fifth Dimension is in the R&B vibe of this one singing back up. Listen for the trumpet and feel the groove.
11- DRESS BLUES……Jason Isbell wrote this and it is an exceptional piece of songwriting with an equally exceptional instrumental mix. It’s a modern take on war and loss with a sentiment as relevant in Civil War times as it is now. The percussion has a military beat to it that carries the melancholy throughout. The most poignant section of the song has a violin playing “Taps” with an assist from keys that transitions into a heavy-hearted slide guitar interpretation. Jewel is the female voice that compliments Zac’s beautifully. What a moving piece of music this is!
12-YOUNG AND WILD……Think Hall & Oates circa 1977, with a twist. It’s a soft rock base with a violin, a glockenspiel, and a hint of EDM with a robust choral ending. He’s remembering a lot from “back in the day,” or vestiges of memories.
13- JUNKYARD……THIS is classic rock! I won’t spoil the surprise on this one. You have to listen to it for yourself. If you were a child of the 60s or 70s, or a fan of this particular band, you’ll recognize certain elements in here. If you’re inclined to cheat, look at the co-writing credit on this. It’s a tribute to one of the most iconic classic rock bands and an album that ranks among the best ever. Fittingly, this song runs 7:15, a throwback to the days when long songs were appreciated. In a typical twist of ZBB ingenuity, they use a violin and a clavinet here. On an album full of ingenious songs, this tops my list.
14- I’LL BE YOUR MAN (SONG FOR A DAUGHTER)……This could lift the rafters in any church. It starts out with an island arrangement (ukulele) and quickly becomes a spiritual hymn with a gospel strength choir. The mix of different background vocalists lends perspective on the sentiment. I hear a bit of “This Little Light of Mine” in this.
15- WILDFIRE……Classic Zac Brown country. Might be an ode to his first number one song, “Chicken Fried.” Add a few instruments and give Zac a chance to write a song about something else he loves. This is a reminder of where his roots lie.
16- TOMORROW NEVER COMES (ACOUSTIC)……This is a summation of the equation Zac wrote: JEKYLL+HYDE. A simple acoustic opening that builds into a wild west, open plains instrumental run for freedom. It’s a testament to the making of this album and living the lyrics of this song.
JEKYLL+HYDE is a declaration of musical independence. It’s Zac’s journey the way he wanted to express it. He turned his creative desire into a business decision. The partners he brought on board bought into his vision. This is a pioneering effort, not to encourage others to make similar records, but to inspire them to make music freely. His message is in the lyrics to “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and that message extends to more than just the making of music. I see this album as a Risky Business move Zac Brown was bold enough to make. In the movie, college bound Joel turns the tables on the college recruiter and gives him this advice, “Sometimes you just gotta say, What the f***, make your move.” Clearly, Zac embraced that in the making of this album. Joel happily cast aside his parent’s Ivy League dreams and accepted the University of Illinois. I picture Zac Brown weighing his options before he announced his intent to make this album. Entering the studio, his partners awaiting direction, Zac tips his Ray Bans just below his eyes. Revealing two different colored eyes, he smiles and says, “Looks like JEKYLL+HYDE!”
JEKYLL+HYDE is available on iTunes: HERE
Listen to “Junkyard.”
Visit Zac Brown’s website for tour info: http://www.zacbrownband.com/shows.html
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