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‘Grohl Sessions’ has rambling energy

Getting what you need is nice, but getting what you want is best of all. That said, how fortunate that Zac Brown and Dave Grohl have selected each other for gift exchange this year.

The group that carries Brown’s name, Zac Brown Band, is a taut road-tested country-rock outfit that over the last five years has been polished up and shoehorned into mainstream country, its life and vibrancy oozing out of it all the while.

What Brown and his bandmates want is the license to rock unencumbered, to place themselves not in the lineage of anodyne country chill-bros like Kenny Chesney but in the rowdy Southern rock pantheon alongside the Allman Brothers Band.

Grohl – onetime drummer of Nirvana, current front-dude of Foo Fighters – is a man who would prefer a life that didn’t include the Internet, computer-aided recording technology, and possibly electricity. A man who, at the 2012 Grammys, gave a speech emphasizing the primacy of “the human element of music.” What Grohl wants are more bands, more hands put upon instruments, more music redolent of the sounds he grew up on, and that he can be a part of making.

That Brown and Grohl met was an auspicious thing, given their desires. That the two met at a John Varvatos store, home of overpriced and underinspired notionally rock ’n’ roll-inspired men’s wear, says all you need to know about the flavor they share.

Brown courted Grohl to work with his band, and “The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1” is the result, the first of what’s been advertised as a pair of EPs. Four songs tracked live to tape, with no computers deployed – this is the stuff of Grohl’s fantasies, and an opportunity for Brown to reframe his band before Nashville hopelessly freezes it.

These songs, especially the mildly bluesy “All Alright” and the upbeat and slightly rowdy “Day for the Dead,” embody the best of all parties involved.

Overall, the EP has more of the rambling, sparkling energy of Zac Brown Band’s live shows than has been captured on its earlier albums, and the quality of the songwriting is higher here, too.

“All Alright” opens with pealing guitars, moving into a shimmering, celebratory tone, swiftly undercut by Brown’s sadness: “I’m lost as a feather in a hurricane/There’s no way to measure/How far I am from OK.” As is typical of his group, there are affecting male harmonies throughout the song, partnered here with arrangements that verge on uproarious Southern gospel. “The Muse,” a cover of a song by the Wood Brothers, has unexpected Celtic flourishes.

Zac Brown Band recorded these songs in a week with Grohl, and the EP was released on Brown’s label straight to iTunes. But even given all this freedom, the songs are still conservatively structured – none is longer than 5 minutes, and apart from “Day for the Dead,” none sink into the reverie of an overlong jam, which is the strength of Brown’s band.

Instead, sometimes this EP highlights its weakness: Brown’s voice, which lacks power and nuance, and lays even flatter the goopier the lyric. That liability becomes even clearer as the musicianship around him elevates, not just by his band members, but also guests, like Grohl on drums, or Oteil Burbridge (of the reconstituted Allman Brothers Band) on bass. But the gifts Brown receives here are plenty, and he has spun gold from far less. So happy holidays to him, and everyone else, too.

Jon Caramanica, New York Times

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