A Little Bit Country, and a Whole Lot Everything Else

Albums by Thomas Rhett, Cam and Brothers Osborne suggest new ways forward for country music in 2016

By
Thomas Rhett; Cam; Brothers Osborne
Ninelle Efremova, Jim Wright, John Shearer

Hooking one single to backing vocals lifted from Sam Cooke, invoking Marvin Gaye on another, Thomas Rhett is a different kind of country star – at least different from the twang-metal cowboy he played on his debut album three years ago. Think of him as an R&B lover-man, unfurling songs about getting loose on vacation or in the club – what’s the difference? "This is the groove that gives you swagger and gets you talking real smooth to a lady," he promises on "Anthem," the opening cut on Tangled Up, before making way for guitars that might as well be EDM synths. At times the corn runs too high, but the sound is unusually rhythym-forward, and it works. While these songs are specific about their sense of place, musically they’re polyglot – those mentions of Georgia and Tennessee are a pledge of fealty that allows the music to go anywhere.

That’s how Cam works it on Untamed, a major-label debut that opens with crickets, a train whistle and harmonica, then zips off into booming drums and stratospheric vocals. The expert gloss comes in part from co-producer Jeff Bhasker, who’s worked with Kanye West, Lana Del Rey and Bruno Mars. Jack the bass on standouts like "Hungover on Heartache" and "Burning House" and they’d be ready for Pink, another Bhasker client.

By comparison, Brothers Osborne are traditionalists – but that riff in the opening track of Pawn Shop sure sounds familiar. Could it really be from Elvis Costello’s "Pump It Up"? Maybe. Produced by Jay Joyce, who helped Eric Church plot his country-rock insurrection, Pawn Shop works an expansive version of Americana that connects Lynyrd Skynyrd to U2 and Merle Haggard to Bob Seger. Those put off by drawls and banjos will be missing out on one of the best rock records in a long while.

From The Archives Issue 1253: January 28, 2016
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