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MUSIC REVIEWS: Zac Brown Band, Clare and the Reasons

- - Monday, July 9, 2012

Uncaged

Zac Brown Band

Atlantic

★★★

Modern-day country stars often reference the greats.

Jason Aldean sang about George Jones in "Dirt Road Anthem," a song that sounded nothing like Mr. Jones' own brand of vintage country, and Eric Church pledged his love to George Strait during "Love Your Love the Most," a humdrum tune with less than half the energy of a Strait classic. The Zac Brown Band is one of those rare country groups with music that actually harks back to an earlier era, though, with songs that draw upon the Southern boogie of Little Feat and the harmony-drenched vocals of Alabama.

On "Uncaged," their third major-label effort, the guys hit their stride whenever they stick close to their Dixieland roots. They stack their voices into thick, twangy heaps on "Natural Disaster" and work up a sweat on "The Wind," a bluegrass song that shines a spotlight on their instrumental skills. During the title track, the guys even switch between time signatures like a jam band.

A group such as the Zac Brown Band will always be synonymous with its namesake leader, and Mr. Brown - a good ol' boy who channels James Taylor one minute and Charlie Daniels the next - is a nice focal point. This is no solo project, though, and the guys thrive whenever they work together, piling fiddle solos and fiery finger-pickin' into the same package. In a genre dominated by singular stars such as Taylor Swift, it's refreshing to see some teamwork.

Whenever they open their doors to outside collaborators, though, the pace slows down. The band sinks beneath the weight of a tired Jimmy Buffett groove on Nic Cowan's "Island Song," and "Overnight" finds Mr. Brown shamelessly seducing his lady friend. Trombone Shorty makes a guest appearance on the latter track, serving as Mr. Brown's wingman and lacing the song with an R&B horn arrangement straight out of the 1970s. The music is actually pretty great, but the lyrics - which revolve around cheap come-ons such as, "First, I'm gonna search your body over; I gotta make sure you ain't hiding nothing nowhere" - sink the ship before it can even leave the dock.

Luckily, the highlights outweigh the missteps. On "Lance's Song," a gorgeous tribute to an Atlanta musician who died two years ago, Mr. Brown paints a powerful picture of a life spent in roadhouses and honky tonks, something these road warriors know a thing or two about.

"The other night, I played to a crowd with no ears," he sings, adding, "[They] wanna hear the songs they know and fill their bellies full of beer." It's one of the most honest, autobiographical moments on the whole album, a reference to the 10 years the band spent on the road, building up a grass-roots following without any support from a major label. Whenever "Uncaged" hits that sort of straightforward sweet spot, the results thrill.

• • •

KR-51

Clare and the Reasons

Frog Stand Records

★★★½

Recorded during an eight-month stay in Berlin, Clare and the Reasons' third album brews up a mighty storm of baroque melodrama and dark, moody Europop.

Five years ago, the band debuted with "The Movie," a cinematic album that could've doubled as the soundtrack of a midcentury film noir. This new record moves in similar circles, relying on atmosphere and textures as much as melody. With a 23-piece orchestra adding sweeping backdrops to every song, "KR-51" feels less like a traditional album and more like a tour through Berlin's past and present.

The city's influence is felt rather than verbally expressed. You can hear it in the imperial percussion of "Make Them Laugh," in the cabaret chord progressions of "This Too Shall Pass," in the grand introduction to "Step in the Gold." Throughout it all, Clare Manchon sings each song with a wispy coo, like a jazz singer from another era.

By the time "Magpie" brings the album to an airy close, it's hard to remember any specific melodies from the 10 songs that came before it. Instead, the listener is left with a series of hazy images - a European street at dusk, a snow-covered park where the Berlin Wall used to be, a tall building towering over a city square - which makes "KR-51" every bit as evocative as the city in which it was conceived.