Zac Brown Band works within a restricted value system that boils down to one thing: comfort. That's comfort in sound, as reflected in the group's capable but unoriginal mixture of country, bluegrass and jam band unraveling; comfort in presentation, which is casual to a fault; and comfort in attitude, which is to say, relaxed, man.
Brown is interested in good times and better times. He's concerned with music and, to a lesser but not negligible degree, musicianship.
He's the kind of guy who makes an album on which the first song is called "Jump Right In" and the last one "Last but Not Least."
That album, "Uncaged" (Southern Ground/Atlantic), is the third major-label studio album (in addition to several independent and live releases) from the band that carries Brown's name. Released this week, it signals the arrival of this group as something more than accidental country music stars. For the first time the group feels polished, bright and concise, not necessarily assets when it comes to this band's skill set.
Zac Brown Band is an anomaly in modern country: not slick, not romantic, not Taylor Swift. It is a ragtag outfit that emphasizes musical interplay and harmony and has never really shaken loose of its rootsy veneer. It recalls Alabama or the Oak Ridge Boys or even the more recent Sawyer Brown, more than any of its contemporary peers.
As country has become more musically codified, signaling its genre bonafides with a few broad gestures, it's become increasingly rare to hear a band sound as if it's built its sound from raw, hand-played instruments.
The most notable thing about "Uncaged" is how it still manages a farm-to-table air in a fast-food package. The fiddle on "The Wind" is frisky and alive, and the organs at the top of the title track are warm and also slightly imperfect, as they should be.
Zac Brown Band's sound was built on the road, and for years this group was far
It may also be one that the band is beginning to peel away from, just as it's cracked the code. "Lance's Song," from the new album, is a story about a musician who loses himself in the sound of his playing to fend off ungrateful, distracted crowds. It's about romance and disillusionment:
''Another night of playing to a crowd with no ears/Who wanna hear the songs they know/And fill their bellies full of beer."
Forget pragmatism: Zac Brown Band is full of dreamers, musicians who chase their inner muses while the cruel world ignores them, right?
Onstage, maybe, but "Uncaged" is just a collection of concessions, one windowless box after the next. Take the song about island life called "Island Song" - "I'ma roll one up like my name is Bob/Yeah I'm gonna party like I'm a Jamaican" - or "Natural Disaster," about a preacher's daughter who "never did what Daddy taught her," or "Day That I Die," in which Brown again clings to music as if it were life itself: "When I've lived out my days until the very end/I hope they find me in my home/A guitar in my hands."
The band's catalog, and this album in particular, is full of infectious songs of no particular consequence. Eight of the group's last 10 singles went to No. 1 on the Billboard country songs chart, the other two were No. 2. Plenty of these songs didn't rise beyond caricature: "Chicken Fried," about comfort (in food); "Toes," about comfort (on vacation); "No Hurry," on comfort (because you're not hurrying).
Brown isn't a powerful singer, which means that he's most effective when triggering collective good will, singing songs of family and friends and escape.
What's missing on this album are songs in the vein of "Highway 20 Ride," one of this group's most affecting hits, about a strained relationship between father and child. Songs like this demonstrate that Brown knows how to take a detour into feeling. But on "Uncaged" that gear is used mostly on love songs, which are not Brown's comfortable space. "Overnight," featuring Trombone Shorty, is Lionel Richie-style country, with some clunker come-ons by Brown.
''Goodbye in Her Eyes" is better, a spare and dry concession to failed love. It's not Brown's best vocal performance on this album, although it is his least affected. Gone is the relaxation, the ease, the breeze. The song isn't comfortable, but, notably, he is.