Here, this is always a fun one: Who's the greatest American rock band of all time?
You've got your Beach Boys, your Eagles, your R.E.M.s, your Nirvanas. The Grateful Dead and the Band have their backers. Some progressive thinkers might toss out the E Street Band or the Heartbreakers.
At the heart of the question, though, is another that requires deeper consideration: What, exactly, makes an American band a great American band?
For me, a few essentials. The music should nod to our country's musical DNA — jazz, blues, country and western, classic soul. You must hear the passion, not just on record but live. It should feel unrestrained, optimistic, as ripe with possibility as an open highway.
It's an inexact chemistry. But American bands will never stop trying to crack the code.
Three modern groups steeped in rock history — Alabama Shakes, Dawes and the Zac Brown Band — have new albums that each offer a glimpse of how musicians are still chasing that great American dream.
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No one doubted Alabama Shakes had the goods. The Athens, Ala., group proved a force to be reckoned with on their 2012 debut Boys & Girls, a smoky, swampy throwback album that bowed at the altar of do-it-live Muscle Shoals soul.
Sound & Color, though, is a huge leap forward, a lively and ambitious attempt to bridge the past and the future. Volcano-voiced singer-guitarist Brittany Howard still sounds as indomitable as on Boys & Girls, but here her voice soars through canyons of lushly produced weirdness.
On the show-stopping Gimme All Your Love, her voice soars from an intimate, half-mumbled whisper to a spectacular wail and back again, and then, as the band blossoms around her, into an irrepressible, nigh-orgasmic hoot. On the title track, an otherworldly odyssey of bells and shuffling drums, her falsetto owes more to Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green; on the trippily drunken Dunes, it's a biting backcountry snarl akin to Jack White's.
The album is a freaky sonic pastiche of rock history. The Greatest flickers with the distorted, mono punk of the Velvet Underground. The morphine-washed Gemini is a starry cross between stoner soul and a sexy slow jam. Who'da-thunk-it touches sparkle throughout — jabs of fuzzy feedback on Future People, screaming sirens on Dunes, a tinkling Old West piano on Miss You. The Shakes make it all feel cohesive — and, more crucially, creative.
As retro-minded artists like White and the Black Keys jog in place atop the blues-rock mountain, Alabama Shakes are charting a powerfully weird new course up to meet them.
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All Your Favorite Bands, the title of the fourth album by L.A. quartet Dawes, hints at singer Taylor Goldsmith's fascination with his own American rock heroes, specifically golden-tinted Laurel Canyon bards like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne. But it's really part of a postbreakup benediction by a man who can no longer keep up with his lover's life in the fast lane. "I hope your brother's El Camino runs forever," he sings on the title track, "and may all your favorite bands stay together."
As a lyricist, Goldsmith has always had a gifted sense of place, his songscapes painted in poetic detail. Here, though, he spends less time taking in the world than wallowing in some candlelit last-chance saloon, bemoaning loves lost and wasted.
"I sit at the table and relive the whole situation," he sings on Now That It's Too Late, Maria, "until the valet who wants to go comes and gives me my keys." He yearns to "wring out each memory" (Things Happen), or, more precisely, "investigate a formula, figures, equations, the details of our union" (Right on Time), to figure out where it all went wrong. These obsessive postbreakup post-ops start to feel a little navel-gazey, to the point you want to shake him and say: It's over, man. She's gone. Let it go.
Dawes has never been a band to rock your socks off; Goldsmith's lilting warble and gently purring guitar warm the soul like kava tea. But despite a few hopeful highs, such as a 2 ½-minute dream of guitars wafting atop a cloud of organs in I Can't Think About It Now, All Your Favorite Bands feels even more sedate than its predecessors. It might break your heart, but when it ends, you won't obsess over it. You'll simply roll down the road to someplace brighter.
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Could the biggest rock band in America be ... a country band?
The Zac Brown Band is among the few American groups who can fill a stadium or headline a diverse festival, and they play with rocklike fire, covering artists like Nirvana, Metallica and Rage Against the Machine.
But never have they split from their country roots like they do on Jekyll + Hyde. The album opens with a rumbling back-road banjo on Beautiful Drug, but quickly swerves into the cosmopolitan fast lane, with an Auto-Tuned Brown singing, "I've got a death wish, baby!" atop a four-on-the-floor disco beat. Adios and vaya con dios, Nashville!
Beautiful Drug is a fitting introduction to the album's sonic duality. In one corner is Mr. Hyde, a monsterific repudiation of everything Brown's done so far, to the point the band is near unrecognizable. Brown is a good singer, but one with a fairly indistinguishable voice. As a result, Heavy Is the Head, a duet with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, simply sounds like Soundgarden. The EDM-tinged Tomorrow Never Comes sounds not like a Zac Brown Band song, but a remix of a Zac Brown Band song — especially considering the album ends with an acoustic version of the same track.
But Brown never strays too far from his personal Dr. Jekyll, the Americana alchemist who melds strings and sweet-tea harmonies like few other superstars. Strip away about seven of Jekyll + Hyde's 16 tracks, and you'd have a fairly traditional, yet still progressive, album. Homegrown's fiddles, organs and lyrics about "taking it easy ... in a small town where it feels like home" are classic Zac. So is Castaway, a bright bit of tin-pan calypso that sounds like a more ambitious B-side to Toes or Knee Deep.
"I've been looking for a sound that makes my heart sing," Brown sings on Remedy. "Been looking for a melody that makes the church bells ring. Not looking for the fame or the fortune it might bring."
Now that's Zac Brown, right there. If only the rest of Jekyll + Hyde lived up to his message.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.