Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Album of the Day: Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop

"Let's put our hearts together/Two parts love and a pinch of good weather/And top it all off with the sun and mix it with rum," sings T.J. Osborne in "Rum," Brothers Osborne's first hit on the country charts. On record, those lines signify Osborne's recipe for a good time. A similar recipe could describe what makes the band's debut album, called Pawn Shop and released last Friday, such an enjoyable powerhouse. Mix the sunniness and gloss of mainstream country music with the wistful romanticism of 1980s rock and roll, douse it in whiskey and top it off with a singer whose voice is equal parts Bruce Springsteen and Chris Cornell, and you've got a pretty good idea of whats makes this record spin.

Unlike yesterday's "album of the day" (Front Row Seat by the Josh Abbott Band), there's not a ton of depth to these songs. Brothers Osborne aren't aiming for the detailed character studies of Jason Isbell with their brand of country music. They're more along the lines of Chris Stapleton, delivering a soulful sound (and more than a few mentions of booze) and then decorating them them in more mainstream-appropriate wrapping paper. "Rum" is basically a sunnier version of Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" (which was itself a cover), while the surging, riot-starting closer "It Ain't My Fault" sounds like it would have been right at home on the raucous back half of Stapleton's Traveller.

Pawn Shop isn't as good as Traveller, of course, but it's a promising step forward for the radio country crop. "Rum" was a minor hit last year," as Brothers Osborne broke through with a promising EP, while second single "Stay a Little Longer" has wormed its way very close to the top of the charts. The latter is the obvious highlight on this record, a fairly straightforward song about a friends-with-benefits arrangement that quickly blossoms into something more--regardless of how much the narrator tries to deny his true feelings. The chorus hook is infectious and hummable, but the song's defining feature is an epic three-minute guitar solo from the second brother of Brothers Osborne, John. This is the kind of free-form, southern-rock-tinged solo that we simply don't hear anymore, a technically magnificent and intentionally overblown bit of indulgence that will probably mark "Stay a Little Longer" as the climactic moment every live set these guys ever play. It ain't "Freebird," but it's closer than you might think.

The songwriting on Pawn Shop is solid and varied, ranging from big road trip anthems like "American Crazy" to swampy groovers like "Dirt Rich." But it's the musicianship that really sets these guys apart. Similarly to A Thousand Horses, who scored a number one country hit last year with "Smoke," Brothers Osborne are a band who you can tell are a terrific live outfit just from listening to their album. Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, the Wallflowers) takes care to make sure everything on the LP sounds organic and live, but the distinctive talents of John on the guitar and T.J. on the vocals do most of the heavy lifting.

Indeed, T.J. Osborne's whiskey-soaked baritone is brewed with a perfect mix of blues and rock, lending a smoky otherworldliness to ballads like "Loving Me Back" (which features an effective vocal feature from Lee Ann Womack) and plenty of yearning earnestness to "21 Summer" (a wistful beauty that recalls the back half of Born in the U.S.A.). Not every song hits: "Greener Pastures," for instance, is a bit to on-the-nose in its depiction of the weed-smoking lifestyle to be effective. But for the most part, Pawn Shop is a remarkably accomplished and enjoyable LP, an album where the band finds such a natural groove that it's hard to believe they're playing on a debut. The biggest complaint I have is that I have to wait five months to blast this record in my car this summer.

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