By Chris Richards
If you're having a hard time spotting the differences between Nashville and Margaritaville, blame Kenny Chesney, the country superstar who found perennial success in the previous decade with a never-ending chain of Jimmy Buffett-inspired odes to rest and relaxation.
Now, country singers of various stripes can't stop crooning about the sand in their boots, the breezes in their hair, the Coronas in their bloodstream. . . . And on and on it goes, like so many waves lapping the shores of Cabo San Lucas. Intended to evoke a sense of escape, these songs now feel punishing -- like an evening spent looking at your neighbor's vacation photos.
Zac Brown Band would like to add a few more snapshots to that miserable, metastasizing slide show. The Georgia sextet's new album, "You Get What You Give," finds Brown lazing in the surf -- where else? -- just eight months after his group won the Grammy for best new artist and nearly two years after the breakout "Chicken Fried" topped Billboard's country singles chart.
But Brown isn't really peddling country music so much as a noxious mash of bar-band schlock, jam-band haze, freedom rock pomp and whatever it is that makes Dave Matthews induce dry heaves. The frontman's proud, clarion tenor resides at the center of his band's ambling licks, as he doles out lyrical wisdom-nuggets worthy of those motivational posters where dolphins leap out of the surf and into some Godforsaken dentist's office.
"Save your strength for things that you can't change," Brown advises on "Let It Go," the album's opening track. "Forgive the ones you can/You gotta let it go." With acoustic guitar strings plink-plucking behind him, Brown unveils his formula: Disguise slacker ambivalence as sage acceptance of fate and wash it down with a fiddle solo.
Brown's bandmates have chops, but the singer's voice always dominates -- like a smug James Taylor, devoid of vulnerability or self-doubt. You can hear it at its boldest during "Quiet Your Mind," another song about shrugging your shoulders as the tide rolls in. "It's a game you can't win," Brown pontificates from his beach chair, singing with an urgency that contradicts the song's easy-breezy moral: "Enjoy the ride."
The grand poobah of the beach, Jimmy Buffett, parasails in to offer his voice to "Knee Deep," a song that bobs along at a reggae-infused cadence without a care, a destination or a point. Together, he and Brown harmonize on the utterly forgettable refrain: "I think I might've found me my own kind of paradise."
Proof positive that one man's heaven is another man's hell.