The Zac Brown Band have lived a charmed and interesting musical life and their sixth studio album, The Owl, is both a natural progression and continued experimentation. The Atlanta band originally kept things fairly straight forward and found grace and poise in their brand of Americana-fused country music. Their 2008 debut album The Foundation came across as nearly flawless and much of the music on it was free of sounds synonymous with certain decades. Instead, great songs like “Highway 20 Ride”, their cover of “Jolene”, and (of course), the irrepressible “Chicken Fried”, sound timeless. But this perpetually restless band has shown that their love of music from all genres has kept them continuously finding new canvases in which to paint on. While it’s true that they will always ply their trade with an underlying backbone rooted in more traditional American country music, they’ve shown that since 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde that they’re quite happy and comfortable exploring a multitude of genres from pop to dance, from rock to, strangely, metal.
The results were mostly positive but there were the occasional clunkers too. Songs like the jazzy, big band “Mango Tree” and the Chris Cornell alternative “Heavy is the Head” proved a little esoteric for the record. It showed the band’s more experimental side, and was a precursor to the vastly different musical terrain they would go on the explore. (On a side note, I saw them on the Jekyll + Hyde tour and they played full, faithful covers of songs like Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”, which was weird, to say the least). On The Owl, they haven’t quite stopped exploring and at times, the results are mixed. The album’s biggest offenders are the electronic/R&B hybrid “OMW” (co-written by Skrillex, ugh) and the hip-hop/country-pop infused “God Given”. The latter comes off the same way Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” did on his Wheelhouse album: not good.
It’s no surprise that best moments on The Owl are when the band tap into their roots and return to more organic country music they showcased on their earlier work. The album lights up with a homeliness and good-natured energy during tracks like “Shoofly Pie” and “Me and the Boys in the Band”. Both take cues from more traditional country music, an as expected, the results are still fantastic. The album’s apex is perhaps the quietest, most introspective moment. The album closes with the single “Leaving Love Behind”, and like previous Zac Brown Band tracks like “Quiet Your Mind”, “Colder Weather”, and “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, the song is a powerfully serene and poignant effort. It’s mostly just Zac Brown, his voice, and a piano- and like it’s done before, the combination is a moving gospel of Brown’s ability to translate reflections of life into wonderment in song.
The restlessness of the band continues to push the Zac Brown Band in new creative directions that will ultimately alienate older fans and listeners who most want to hear great country music. However, the band’s ability to always draw influence from their roots (songs like “The Woods” and “Need This” all bounce and sway with pop rhythms, but clearly do not forget their more traditional lineage) keeps the majority of the album grounded. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights as The Foundation or Uncaged did, but it hasn’t lost its way by any means- it’s just taken a few creative and experimental detours. The bones are here and they’re still good.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.