Brothers Osborne Take a Country Rock Edge on ‘Skeletons’
While country music has considerably expanded its horizons in recent years, with R&B and hip-hop influences making their way into plenty of the latest country hits, rock has also seen attention within the genre. For their third album “Skeletons,” the Brothers Osborne have decided to take the rock route. Singer TJ and guitarist John, the two brothers at the helm, have stood out since 2016’s “Pawn Shop,” with its instantaneous hooks and unique take on contemporary country. 2018’s “Port Saint Joe” expanded the duo’s sound, while paying homage to country heroes of yore. Their latest release finds the brothers taking on new dimensions, with live band dynamics amplified, hitting harder than ever, while striking a fair balance between expected country themes and new sonic terrain. Like their first album, “Skeletons” is recorded with the brothers’ live band, and captures the energy of the group’s live show, in a time when live music is sorely missed.
Opener “Lighten Up” is a charged introduction, with all the Brothers Osborne’s trademark tricks on full display. The band has no shortage of guitar riffs and vocal hooks that sound refreshingly classic, delivered with an energy and rock ‘n’ roll edge that sets them apart from most of their peers on contemporary country radio. “All Night” delves into ZZ Top-style blues rock riffage. John’s sprightly guitar indulgences and TJ’s camp deep voicings lead through twists and turns and make for an infectious party track. The celebratory stylings are further amplified on “All the Good Ones Are,” which finds the band taking new strides, venturing into funk territory. At moments, they sound almost like a country rock reimagining of Parliament Funkadelic, then launch into overdrive for a chorus about “Cheap thrills, fire drills, fast wheels,” and all such amusements.
The surfeit of energy gives way to something of a cathartic release on the harmonica-laden “I’m Not For Everyone,” a song validating authenticity and comfort in one’s own skin, and trading in some of the free festivity for more internal musings, but turning it out with all the usual flair. The title track begins with the most bold, blaring guitar riff yet, hooking the listener in immediately, and running through a countrified blues routine with dashes of the funk that came before. TJ’s exaggerated baritone sounds especially in place, fitting all the excesses of the music, and making for a colorful romp. He wraps up the chorus with catchy climactic lines, as usual, singing, “You got skeletons in your closet / And I got bones to pick with them,” resolving his melody in a way that emphasizes his stance. “Back on the Bottle” pays tribute to Merle Haggard. While TJ sticks to his own singing voice, preventing the song from lapsing into standard imitation, the instrumental stylings, with plentiful keys now added, capture the spirit of Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” updated in high fidelity.
The brothers continue to impress with their effortless versatility on the streamlined, radio-ready, sentimental cut that is “High Note.” TJ sings in his mid register, still sonorous, but less cartoonish, as he muses about ending a relationship on good terms. One can almost sense the band itching to burst out into solos again, and this comes in due time on “Muskrat Greene,” an amped-up bluegrass frenzy that finds the group jamming with clockwork precision in their first instrumental track. There’s a natural segue into “Dead Man’s Curve,” a speedy, festive number with the Allman Brothers southern rock stylings, a handclap-heavy hoedown, and concerted, spirited shout-outs.
“Make It a Good One” brings the inevitable feel good fare that comes in a popular country album, with TJ singing, “Make it a good one, make it a long one / If you’re gonna pour one make it a strong one” in a simple, catchy chorus as John runs through more timeless, twangy riffs. The positive sentiments continue on “Hatin’ Someone,” which calls for taking the high road in an upbeat sing-along, with some of the juiciest guitar work yet, over hand drums that frame the country rock sounds in a distinctly dancey form. Finally, “Old Man’s Boots” is an ode to humble, small town beginnings, and a celebration of the lifestyle and values, with the band plodding on with their usual verve directed conclusively, as TJ recollects, “They weren’t flashy, they weren’t classy / But they made him workin’ class happy.”
The band’s combination of blues, bluegrass, southern rock, and comprehensive country, with new funk excursions added to the mix, never sounded so panoramic and impactful. The guitar work is particularly exhilarating throughout, and the band has never sounded so fully fleshed out. The lyrics are upbeat and upstanding, straightforward and celebratory, resulting in an album that is refreshing in both sound and spirit. The songs can be on the silly side, but always come across as intentionally so, with clichés embraced with abandon, and emphasis placed on feelgood fare. Nods to earlier eras and specific country and southern rock influences make for an additional cultural resonance. Overall, “Skeletons” is easily the Brothers Osborne’s most definitive album yet.
“Skeletons” releases Oct. 9 on Apple Music.