The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Zac Brown Band Branches Out In The Blandest Way Possible

In this era of ever-diminishing music sales, there are weeks when an album squeaks into the #1 spot because there’s no legitimate competition. This was not one of those weeks. Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde forcefully seized the top spot, racking up 228,000 equivalent units — one of the best sales frames of the year — to handily defeat a musical theater tribute album Josh Groban must have figured was a surefire #1. When you’re outselling Josh Groban singing showtunes, you are officially one of the most popular bands in the land. It’s no surprise to see Brown and his bros debuting on top; he’s long been one of the most bankable names in country, one of the only genres left that consistently produces top-selling albums, and his last two LPs entered at #1 as well. What’s surprising is how Brown strategized his way to the summit this time: on the strength of two very different #1 singles in two separate radio formats, with a record that extends that coalition-building approach even farther.

On the country charts there’s “Homegrown,” a lesser sequel to Brown’s signature hit “Chicken Fried.” Like “Chicken Fried,” “Homegrown” is an easygoing roots-pop tune about the pleasures of living simply in a small town. Both songs are basically checklists of your basic country song ingredients — good friends, good food, a good woman; cold beer, the great outdoors, “a pair of jeans that fit just right” — rattled off with a sense of starry-eyed bewilderment at the thought that life could get any better than this. “Homegrown” has more of a mid-tempo studio-rock churn to it, whereas “Chicken Fried” is powered by an irresistible head-bob swing, but in essence they’re… if not the same song, then very close cousins. Which is fine; from Def Leppard to Drake to Disclosure, genre superstars return to their winning formulas all the time. I’m not sure where Brown gets off shitting all over the bro-country scene, though, when he keeps treading the same dirt road.

Meanwhile, Brown is making headway at modern rock radio for the first time thanks to the Chris Cornell duet “Heavy Is The Head.” From Cornell’s commanding nasal snarl on down to the gnarly percussive bass riff that serves as the song’s spine, it’s basically a Soundgarden and/or Temple Of The Dog and/or Audioslave track, Brown not so much tweaking his aesthetic as trying on an entirely different one. Brown collaborated with Foo Fighters on Sonic Highways and seems to be the go-to respectable country star for what remains of the mainstream hard-rock hegemony. So it only makes sense that he would make advances toward getting a piece of that pie, especially because Brown probably genuinely loves and respects Cornell as much as he loves and respects the bluegrass he grew up on. Musicians hate being boxed into the sound that made them famous, and they love expanding their audience. The same red states that represent country’s core fan base are also home to the nation’s largest hard-rock festivals — Rock On The Range, Rocklahoma, etc. I don’t love that sound like I did when I was 14, but a burly post-grunge move makes as much sense for Brown as a pop crossover made sense for Red-era Taylor Swift.

With an album title like Jekyll + Hyde and singles like “Homegrown” and “Heavy Is The Head,” I expected to hear Brown’s album to be half country, half rock — a two sides of the same songwriter kind of thing. And on the swampy “Junkyard,” the band does delve into rock again, although they’re far less successful without Cornell howling all over the track. Brown doesn’t stop his expansion project at butt-rock, though. Jekyll + Hyde is all over the place, and not in a good way. Modern success stories like Lorde and Florida Georgia Line got so huge in part because songs like “Royals” and “Cruise” can easily work in multiple radio formats, so seamlessly do they combine such a broad palette of influences. Brown seems to be trying for the same feat, only with different songs, going all-in one style at a time. In an era when the most popular musicians are the ones that feel genreless, the guy who gave us “Chicken Fried” has instead delivered HomeTown Buffet: The Album.

It starts with “Beautiful Drug,” a standard-issue love-as-drug throwdown that undergirds its twang with an exultant, festival-ready electronic thump not unlike what Avicii did to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars.” Even more brazen in its Avicii worship is “Tomorrow Never Comes,” which essentially Xeroxes the worldwide Mumford-rave smash “Wake Me Up.” Sara Bareilles shows up for the big-band jazz duet “Mango Tree,” a ditty that might have accidentally wandered over from that Josh Groban record. “Loving You Easy” is Motown plus drawl, while “One Day” explores Caribbean sounds over a hip-hop backbeat.

In case you were worried that Brown abandoned his roots, there are plenty of boilerplate country tropes, some more successful than others. In the middle of “Dress Blues,” a waltzing tribute to veterans, everything drops out except a violin playing “Taps.” That one’s a highlight, at least partially because it was written by Jason Isbell. On the other end of the quality spectrum is “Castaway,” the requisite beach-party song, replete with references to sipping rum and lounging in the sand. The gospel-tinged ballad “I’ll Be Your Man (Song For A Daughter)” is saccharine but will probably click with a certain set of sentimental dads. “Young And Wild” is back-porch music through a Jason Mraz filter (blech), and on “Wildfire,” Brown intones, “I wanna lay you down in a field of autumn clover, honey” (double blech). Although musically flavorless, “Bittersweet” works as an emotional paean to a dead friend. And on the all-you-need-is-love anthem “Remedy,” Brown branches out from country tradition ideologically rather than sonically.

Theoretically, a country superstar boldly venturing into the sonic unknown is appealing; it’s one of the reasons so many of us lost our shit for Eric Church’s The Outsiders last year. There’s something extremely attractive about keeping one foot in your area of expertise while shamelessly indulging your other influences. The trouble with Brown’s bid for ubiquity is that, regardless of intention, it plays less like a musician spreading his wings and more like a politician building his base. Brown’s spark comes and goes on Jekyll + Hyde, but the end result feels as overcooked as his buddy Grohl’s own recent projects. It’s the most unadventurous “adventurous” album I can imagine, largely because it’s exactly the album I would have imagined.

CHART WATCH

Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” is #1 again for a fourth straight week, while Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” inches even closer to the top with a #2 finish. After this week’s power remix and Tonight Show appearance, maybe the song has what it takes to unseat “See You Again”? It’s even won me over, which is really something considering my original stance. That means Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars fall to #3 with their former 14-week #1 hit “Uptown Funk!” Interestingly, Billboard notes that even though “Uptown Funk!” couldn’t break Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s record for most weeks on top, it now holds the record for most weeks in the top 3 (21) by two weeks over Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth.”

The Weeknd’s “Earned It” holds at #4, while Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance” climbs to a new peak at #5. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” is down to #6, followed by Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” at #7. Jason Derulo was suspected of falling this week, but his “Want To Want Me” actually rose two spots to #8. The biggest story of the week, though, is viral sensation T-Wayne (pictured), whose “Nasty Freestyle” ascends to #9 mostly on the strength of user-generated Vines. (People love to film themselves doing the Whip to “Nasty Freestyle.”) Lastly, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” slides to #10.

As referenced above, Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde enters the albums chart at #1 with 228,000 equivalent units. Josh Groban, whose musical theater tribute Stages debuts at #2 with a healthy 180,000, must be mad that his handlers didn’t schedule his album up against weaker competition like Wale (100,000) or Stages duet partner Kelly Clarkson (97,000). The Furious 7 soundtrack is at #3 with 53,000, followed by the week’s final top-10 debut. That’d be country star Tyler Farr, whose Suffer In Peace racked up 42,000 units to begin at #4, besting his 29,000 and #5 debut for 2013’s Redneck Crazy. The rest of this week’s top 10: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (#5, 37,000), the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack (#6, 36,000), Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color (#7, 34,000), Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour (#8, 33,000), Taylor Swift’s 1989 (#9, 32,000), and Meghan Trainor’s Title (#10, 31,000).

TRACK CITY

Britney Spears & Iggy Azalea – “Pretty Girls”
It’s just so ugly.

Snoop Dogg – “Run Away” (Feat. Gwen Stefani)
Neither Snoop nor Stefani has pulled off a proper hit this year, and this stinker isn’t going to get them there either.

Paris Hilton – “High Off My Love” (Feat. Birdman)
Who needs Lil Wayne when Cash Money’s got Paris Hilton EDM bangers? I think this song is our final definitive proof that Birdman can make any piece of trash production sound cool just by showing up to talk some shit at the end.

Elle King – “Ex’s & Oh’s”
Rob Schneider’s daughter is pretty good!

Bret Michaels – “Girls On Bars”
Bret Michaels is the latest aging arena-rocker to go country. And you thought Rock Of Love was embarrassing.

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NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Zayn Malik and his former One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson are feuding on Twitter. [Complex]
  • Kanye West thanked Cher for AutoTune at the Met Ball. [Idolator]
  • Sam Smith has cancelled his tour dates and will have surgery to repair his vocal cords. [Radio.com]
  • Mariah Carey makes Frito pie in a not-that-funny cooking show parody, a reference to the “corny like Fritos” line on her new single “Infinity.” [Funny Or Die]
  • Beyoncé signed three teenage pop-star hopefuls to recording contacts. [NY Post]
  • Nicki Minaj has joined the cast of Barbershop 3.[XXL]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME

HOLD ON, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME

Baby steps, Chris Brown.

Posted by Late Night with Seth Meyers on Wednesday, May 6, 2015