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. The group is able to maneuver from the Jimmy Buffett-style groove of "Island Song" to the bluegrass-inflected romp of the brilliant lead single "The Wind" without any loss of focus or identity. Whatever various genres they may pull from, Uncaged reaffirms Zac Brown Band's status as a uniquely Southern act. They've developed an aesthetic that's immediately identifiable, particularly in comparison to the sound-alike hard-rock artists currently populating country-radio playlists.
It's to Brown's credit as the band's primary songwriter that he never stoops to listing obvious rural signifiers as a means of asserting his country cred. The narratives of "Goodbye in Her Eyes" and "The Wind" nod to genre conventions while developing in natural, unhurried terms. No matter who his collaborators may be (in addition to his bandmates, he's joined by singer-songwriters Sonia Leigh, Amos Lee, and, um, Jason Mraz here), Brown's laidback "bro" charm is his trademark as a songwriter. As a result, "Sweet Annie" and "Day That I Die" may not have a unique POV, but they're never less than pleasant and are perfectly constructed, with strong lyrical and melodic hooks to compensate for familiar subject matter.
The band's spirited performances also help elevate the material. They're joined by Trombone Shorty on the quiet-storm come-on "Overnight," which veers precariously close to camp territory, and there's a pervasive sense of fun on opener "Jump Right In" and "Natural Disaster." The album may not include anything as outright funny as Brown telling a bartender to "lick [his] sack," as he did on You Get What You Give's "Whiskey's Gone," but "The Wind" is as good-natured and affable as anything the band has recorded. None of this makes Uncaged revolutionary or particularly high-minded, but there's something to be said for an album that's such a refreshing and clean break from what has become country music's rather depressing norm.