Surprises are increasingly rare in the music industry -- well, good surprises anyway.
The Zac Brown Band, however, pulls off a doozy on its third album "Uncaged" (Atlantic), blending several shades of country, reggae, soul and jam-band rock in a combination that sounds effortless instead of experimental.
Yes, Brown won country fans over years ago, breaking through in 2008 with the harmony-filled anthem "Chicken Fried," and fans of his live show know the band has always woven these genres together. But on "Uncaged," the band steps up its game.
"Overnight," which features Trombone Shorty, is one of the year's best R&B songs, offering both an old-school soul groove and modern phrasing that suggests a fondness for Ne-Yo and Robin Thicke. While no one will confuse "Island Song" for a Bob Marley original, it's the sort of reggae that collaborator Jason Mraz makes work.
There's even a pop ballad, "Goodbye in Her Eyes," that is brimming with crossover potential, as the band's gorgeous harmonies lift the bittersweet love song and its regret-filled lyrics. ("Don't smile at me if it ain't what you mean," Brown laments.)
Even the band's country songs have gotten better. The rollicking first single "The Wind" is a fiddle-filled good time, and "Sweet Annie" sounds like the Southern-fried country cousin to "Sweet Melissa."
The band has talked of how it wanted to create a new genre that combines all its favorite styles. "Uncaged" makes that genre sound like a winner.