Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Zac Brown Band--You Get What You Give

Over my winter break, I've been interning at my parents' firm.  The part-time gig helps me make some money to gear up for my final semester of college.  I tell myself that the work is interesting (sometimes it is) and that it will be of help to me down the road.  So it's one of those jobs where you are more excited for it on some days and less enthused on others.  Being a Monday after a long solid weekend, today was a less enthused day.  I woke up at 9:20--egregiously early for college winter break--took a quick shower, got dressed, grabbed an armful of things for work, and trudged out the door through the bitter Upstate New York cold to my car.  It wasn't a particularly inspiring beginning to the morning.  That was, of course, until I put the key in the ignition and remembered what was in my CD player: Zac Brown Band's You Get What You Give.

     YGWYG is one of those albums that picks you up when you're down.  That's something you figure out when you first open the album.  The liner notes include Brown's recipe for Campfire Chili.  He and his Dad ran a restaurant before his band started touring, and this appears to be one sample of their home cooking.  The intimacy continues with the album itself.  The first song is a rocking number instructing listeners to "Let It Go," forget about the outside world, and focus on the music.  While the album's lyrics explore topics that are both mournful and joyous, the music is uplifting throughout.  It's an album that gets your foot tapping like only the best music can do.  Zac Brown, a relatively new face on the country scene, specializes in that down-home combination of country and rock n' roll that comes straight from the American musical heart.  While his first album, The Foundation, is loaded with hits, this sophomore effort shifts the aim from hit-making to homegrown.  The results are phenomenal, and they are inspiring for casual country fans and serious music listeners alike.

     YGWYG demonstrates the broad spectrum from which Brown draws his musical influence.  Brown has some roots in popular country and soft rock, and he shows it here through duets with legends Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson.  The former collaboration, "Knee Deep," evokes the idyllic island paradise that Jimmy Buffett idolized in songs like "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Margaritaville."  The latter, "As She's Walking Away," is the album's lone major hit.  Both songs go beyond the usual depth for country and pop rock, and "As She's Walking Away" showcases brilliant vocals from veteran Jackson and Brown alike.  If you like either Jackson or Buffett (I admit, I enjoy both), these tunes will definitely be a high point of the album.

     The pop aspect of the band's music might turn off some listeners, who will dismiss Brown as just another country artist.  Yet there is so much more to Brown's music.  Brown brings in elements of New Orleans cajun ("Settle Me Down," which rips off the beat from the traditional "Iko Iko"), funk ("Keep Me In Mind"), and classic country ("Cold Hearted").  The rest of the album demonstrates that the Zac Brown Band has two major things going for it.  The first is the strong influence of the great southern rock bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  The second is something most modern country acts don't have: an excellent collection of musicians that always play together.  The former gives the band a tougher sound that is comparable to nothing on today's mainstream music scene, and the latter gives the band's sound a consistency that is hard to find on popular radio.

     Let's talk about the southern rock influence first.  Brown and Company exercise the southern rock ethos on "Colder Weather," and songs like the raunchy and hell-raising "Whiskey's Gone" and the honky-tonk "Make This Day" show that Brown's music goes beyond the normal radio-friendly Nashville music of today.  ZBB has an edge to it that the 70s southern bands had and today's country acts usually don't.  The jamming southern music of the Allman Brothers Band is present on "I Play the Road," which recalls Dickey Betts' classic road songs like Ramblin' Man and Jessica.  Its open-ended middle section is just one example of the exceptional musical talent that exists within the band, and it brings listeners back to a time when musicianship was acceptable in rock music.  But the ultimate tribute to southern rock comes with "Who Knows."  This tune is extremely unusual for a country album in that it stretches 10 minutes and features extended fiddle and guitar solos.  The song is an exposition of the music of southern rock giants Skynyrd and Allman, as well as lesser-known heroes like Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, and Molly Hatchet.  I was absolutely ecstatic when I heard "Who Knows" for the first time because of both the quality of its musical content and what the song does to show how great those Southern boogie bands were.

     "Who Knows" also serves as the best demonstration of ZBB's musical ability.  The fiddle solo comes courtesy of Jimmy De Martini, the band's brilliant violinist who dominates the band's instrumental sound.  De Martini is equal parts Charlie Daniels and Mahavishnu Orchestra.  If you want some of his best playing, try "No Hurry," which Brown co-authored with country star James Otto, or "Quiet Your Mind."  The band also includes a pair of multi-instrumentalists, Coy Bowles and former John Mayer collaborator Clay Cook.  Bowles and Cook combine for an immense amount of musical talent, meaning that no song is too complex for the band to pull off with flying colors.  Finally, Brown himself is brilliant, bringing a full, soulful voice to the table that is somewhere between Ronnie Van Zant and Brad Paisley.  Brown is also an exceptional guitar player.  Check out a live version of "Chicken Fried" for some of his furious acoustic picking.  Finally, Brown writes all of the band's songs, mostly in collaboration with Wyatt Durette, meaning that the band always has a unified source of new material.

     YGWYG is an phenomenal collection of songs that cover several styles of wholesome, down-home music.  Yet the song's purpose does not become clear until one of the last songs in the album: "Martin."  This tune is special for a few reasons.  It is the only song that Brown writes solo.  The song features a guest appearance by guitarist Tony Rice.  It also includes the album's title phrase, "you get what you give," and Brown includes all of the song's lyrics in the liner notes to the album.  "Martin" is not about a family member, an old mentor, or a respected family member.  No, it's a song about all three: Brown's beloved Martin guitar.  The song reveals the album's theme: it's the music that matters.  Music is a part of who you are, and it keeps you going through good times and bad.  Furthermore, you can only get from music what you give to it.  The more thought and emotion you put into music, the more it will affect you and help you through the day.

    This is what You Get What You Give is all about.  Music, says Brown, takes you out of your day-to-day activities, and it gives you an outlet for your emotions, thoughts, and desires.  This album calms our everyday cares and concerns and shows there is a way out of darkness.  In a sense, that is what all music is meant to do.  The Blues talks about the struggle between man and woman and then overcomes that struggle with brilliant and blistering playing.  Jam music takes us on a journey where we forget about the world around us.  Country music paints a picture of that idyllic life which is so much simpler and peaceful than the one we are all living in today.  YGWYG uses all three of these approaches and many more to show how powerful music can be.  It cleanses us of the mundane, trivial concerns of life and gets in touch with our core emotions.  To steal a line from Patrick Swayze in Point Break, "it's that place where you lose yourself and you find yourself."  You Get What You Give is more than a collection of music.  The Zac Brown Band intends it to be a spiritual and loving experience.  From the campfire chili directions in the liner notes to the campfire closeness of the music, the album achieves this goal.  It keeps you going, whether you're flying or stumbling.  YGWYG is as good of an album as you will find in modern music.  Quiet your mind and enjoy the ride.

Final Grade: A

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