The Zac Brown Band’s music is difficult to categorize. While much of it is firmly rooted in country music, it is also heavily influenced by Southern rock and reggae, and at times it also reminds me of what Top 40 and adult contemporary radio used to sound like back in the 1970s. Because their selections tend to be eclectic, I’m always a little apprehensive when they release a new album, figuring it is only a matter of time before they release something that I don’t like. I’ll also admit that I was initially put off by Uncaged’s creepy cover art by Brandon Maldonado, which depicts what looks like a demonic representation of the Virgin Mary, and which is titled “Our Lady of Merciful Fate”. Cover art aside, however, Uncaged is a solid collection of tunes, though it isn’t quite as satisfying as the band’s previous two releases.
Once again Keith Stegall shares production duties with Zac Brown, and the band members all had a hand in writing ten of the album’s eleven tracks, and once again they’ve managed to push the boundaries of country music while maintaining a freshness that continues to elude the music of most of their peers. The album opens with the Caribbean-flavored “Jump Right In”, a catchy and enjoyable, though not remotely country number. The Caribbean theme is revisited a few tracks later with “Island Song”, a fun but lightweight summertime number that is the album’s only song not written by any of the band members.
The album’s best track is the current single “The Wind”, a bluegrass-tinged, fast-paced number that Occasional Hope reviewed last month. It is quite different from anything that the band has done previously and the sort of song I never expected to hear from them. Nothing else on the album comes as close to traditional country, which is a slight disappointment because I’d really like to hear more music in this vein from them. They push the envelope further on a few other tracks, which unfortunately don’t work as well. The Southern-rock title track is a bit too heavy on the electric guitars for my taste, though it is probably a good number to jam onstage. Likewise, I could have done without the R&B flavored “Overnight” with guest artist Trombone Shorty, which really sounds out-of-place in this collection.
The bulk of the album sounds similar to the band’s first two major label releases and all of the songs are worth listening to. “Sweet Annie” reminds me a lot of “Colder Weather” and is a good candidate for a single release, and the fast-paced “Natural Disaster”, which has a beat similar to John Denver and Emmylou Harris’ “Wild Montana Skies” is a particular favorite of mine. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” reminds me of the kind of song Blackhawk used to do; it too is a potential hit single. The album’s last two tracks, “Day that I Die” with guest artist Amos Lee, and “Last But Not Least”, which the band co-wrote with Mac McAnally, are both excellent but probably aren’t commercial enough to be sent to radio.
Despite a few missteps, Uncaged is a good example of why one shouldn’t judge a book — or an album — by its cover. While I prefer The Foundation and You Get What You Give, Uncaged has grown on me with repeated listenings and there is more than enough here to keep Zac Brown Band fans satisfied.