I’m still not 100% sold on 2010 Best New Artist Grammy winners Zac Brown Band as an actual country band. Their particular aesthetic, which they further refine on their latest album, You Get What You Give, splits the already marginal difference between Jimmy Buffett’s beachcomber grooves and The Mellow Show frat rock. When they attempt to make more traditional country concessions, as on their breakthrough hit “Chicken Fried” or on this album’s truck-stop ballad “Colder Weather,” the results come across as somewhat strident and inorganic. But contemporary country is actually a good deal more accommodating than many give it credit for (or than many genre purists would like), so Brown and his crew seem to have found a home there.
Whether or not You Get What You Give scans as a country record outside of a few isolated moments, it’s a pretty terrific record in its own right, and it ultimately sounds no less country than Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now. To say that it’s a sight better than that album would be to damn it with faint praise, but You Get What You Give is an album by a band with a fully realized point of view and considerable confidence in their technical skill.
That confidence is most certainly earned. The tricky little guitar figure that opens “Knee Deep” is but one example of how Zac Brown Band finds opportunities to show off their chops in ways that don’t pull focus from their well-constructed songs. “Quiet Your Mind” proves that the band can pull off an arena-sized, electric guitar-driven climax, while fantastic lead single “As She’s Walking Away,” a duet with Alan Jackson, includes a deft fiddle line and some nicely layered vocal harmonies. I wouldn’t put the band up against Americana acts like the SteelDrivers or Punch Brothers as far as pure technical skill or innovation go, but Zac Brown Band is easily the most accomplished band in contemporary country since the Dixie Chicks still counted.
They’re in fine company, in other words. But, lest anyone forget those comparisons to stoner rock acts, the album includes “Who Knows,” a jam-band digression that just goes on for-fucking-ever and even has a proper percussion break section. That it will play well live and impress the band’s already sizable fanbase are both givens, but it’s a tedious, self-indulgent track to include on a proper studio album, and it stops You Get What You Give in its tracks.
Fortunately, Zac Brown Band is so doggedly likable that such a moment of weakness is a forgivable offense. The majority of the album’s songs find occasions to showcase Brown’s wiseass sense of humor: In fact, his frequent use of the word “ass” over the course of the album seems like an obvious middle finger to radio stations who censored that word out the band’s hit single “Toes.” Which is all well and good, but the album’s real money shot occurs about halfway through honky-tonk rave-up “Whiskey’s Gone,” on which Brown goes head to head with a bartender. “The bartender told me it was time to go,” Brown shouts at full volume before turning the line on, “And I told him that he could lick my sack.” It’s not just that Brown’s rejoinder is the first of its kind for a country song, it’s that it actually employs a bait-and-switch rhyme with the word “glass” earlier in the verse to heighten the effect.
It’s just more proof that Brown and his band are very, very good at what they do. Brown, for his part, is an effortless singer. The timbre of his voice is probably prettier than he would like, but he has a deceptively rich vocal tone that lends itself well to a wry song like “Settle Me Down” as much as to a contemplative ballad like “Martin,” an ode to his acoustic guitar. The former song sounds tailor-made for radio, but the latter demonstrates that Brown is capable of more than simple escapist pleasures.
Perhaps what’s most encouraging about You Get What You Give, though, is that Zac Brown Band hasn’t played it safe. Instead, they’ve played fast and loose with a set of influences that owe far less to country music than to Southern rock, jam bands, and reggae. But with four #1 singles and more than two million albums sold, they’re one of the strongest sellers in Nashville these days. Since money talks on Music Row, that meant that they found themselves in the enviable position of being able to make a record on their own terms. While You Get What You Give won’t win over any traditionalists, that it’s an album that showcases first-rate musicianship and a definite point of view makes it one of the year’s strongest country records.