For the last five years, Brothers Osborne have been one of the more compelling acts operating squarely within the confines of commercial country music. The Maryland brother duo has built a strong live following (and earned a pair of Top Twenty hits) based on their no-nonsense balance of crisp country-rock and crooning slow-jams. The former highlight John Osborne’s thrilling guitar theatrics, while the latter showcase TJ Osborne’s nuanced baritone. The group’s last album, Port Saint Joe, was an elegant display of that honky-tonk yin-yang that leaned slightly towards the group’s slower, more contemplative material.
The band’s third and latest album, Skeletons, shifts the balance firmly in the opposite direction. This is their first fully unabashed rock record, a collection of songs clearly meant as a rough draft of what they will, one day, sound like in front of a large audience.
That makes Skeletons all the more tantalizing to hear in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Songs like the mountain-boogie instrumental “Muskrat Greene” and the stomping “Dead Man’s Curve” will clearly be future live showcases, but with the propulsive polish of producer Jay Joyce (back for round three with the group), on record they feel like mere shells of their future live iterations.
For the most part, though, Skeletons, is a remarkably engaging country-leaning rock record that shows off what the duo does best. Part of the group’s unlikely success is their ability to appeal to slightly more traditional leaning country fans, a feat that can be chalked up, in part, to their sharp choice of collaborators: If songs like “High Note” (the record’s sole pure sultry ballad) and Southern boogie “All The Good Ones Are” feel reminiscent of Nineties country radio gold, it might be because they’re co-written by Craig Wiseman and Casey Beathard, Music Row veterans responsible for countless hits from that era. The latter song’s chorus shows off the band’s knack for lines that scan as just slightly stranger than usual in Nashville: “Not every lover is a Coney Island thrill ride.”
Elsewhere, the band runs through a beautifully ragged bar-band sing along on “Back on the Bottle” (written with Texas troubadour Hayes Carll) and bust out an accordion for “I’m Not For Everyone,” their feel-good ode to those who run slightly against the grain (“I’m like scotch and zydeco bands/I’m like B-side Townes Van Zandt”) that feels like a recasting of the band’s 2019 Maren Morris duet “All My Favorite People.”
For a group that’s built their career on finding a way to showcases its quirkiness while still tweaking and tinkering with commercial country from within, there’s more than a little bit of self-consciousness in a tune like “I’m Not For Everyone.” The song’s allegory extends to the chorus, which finds them celebrating the rare space they’ve carved out, in the midst of their most proudly offbeat album to date. “I’m a little more rough than smooth,” TJ Osborne sings, “It’s a wonder I found somebody like me, like you.”