While country’s status on the world stage is essentially nonexistent, in the US it remains a huge draw, undergoing the same peaks, troughs and shifting trends that any popular genre experiences. And anyone whose been keeping an eye with notice a tilt from synthetic, immaculately-produced pop-country into something a bit more rugged and natural. Acts like Chris Stapleton and the Zac Brown Band have been imperative in directing this change, but others have certainly been following in their footsteps. Just look at Brothers Osborne, the sibling duo of T.J. and John whose debut full-length Pawn Shop was released Stateside last January, with their single Stay A Little Longer representing a marked shift in the genre’s mainstream by peaking in the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s hardly surprising either because it’s a great song, with T.J.’s strident, muscular vocals, some genuinely impressive guitar work from John and the sleek but earthy production from frequent Eric Church and Cage The Elephant collaborator Jay Joyce.
As for Pawn Shop on the whole, it’s a much more diverse case, seeing Brothers Osborne covering the bases by spanning everything from subtle, hollow indie-country to muscular country rock. They’re definitely at their best when they turn up the volume and veer more towards the latter, like in the grimy, blocky grooves of Dirt Rich or especially It Ain’t My Fault with its snarling southern rock riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a band like ZZ Top. The rest is a bit of a mixed bag; the more melodic, expansive country-rock of 21 Summer or Stay A Little Longer is broad but has a lot of character, but with some of the more reserved, rougher tracks like Heart Shaped Locket and Love The Lonely Out Of You, there’s texture but not a lot of spark and they feel more like placeholders. Joyce’s production is similarly inconsistent, keeping that earthy indie-country sound when it demands it, but sanding off a lot of similar edges on the harder tracks, and subsequently the grittier affectations of T.J.’s baritone that removes some of the weight. It’s a messy album plagued with an uncertainty of what it wants to be, and though some moments of quality manage to break through, it comes in very noticeable pieces rather than as a whole.
As is fitting, the lyrics are subject to the same sort of patchiness, hitting clearly-defined country subject matter to synergise with the album’s scattershot style while only very rarely being below mediocre. At worst, there’s the one-dimensional indulgences that refuse to elaborate beyond the very basics like in Rum or the dumb weed song Greener Pastures that just feels out of place, but everything else is at least passable. The adherence to genre staples like downplayed love songs (Loving Me Back) or flag waving American universality (American Crazy and Down Home) range from passable to inoffensively forgettable, but there’s at least a technical core that can be appreciated, one that really comes into its own when there’s a bit more unique personality on show. 21 Summer sees T.J. reminiscing about the girl who took his virginity and wondering what she’s doing now in a way that plays up how well the more reserved delivery works, while Stay A Little Longer sees the breakdown of the friends-with-benefits dynamic as he starts to develop genuine feelings and the desire for something more serious. It’s this very human conflict that makes these two tracks amongst the best on the album,, and though it’s a shame this more thoughtful, detailed type of songwriting doesn’t show up more often, it reaffirms the smartness and care that makes Brothers Osborne a worthwhile prospect.
Because make no mistake, Pawn Shop isn’t perfect by any means. It’s frequently unfocused, lacks any real coherent thought and is all over the place in terms of quality. But despite all of that, Brothers Osborne have a conviction to their craft, as well as some real songwriting chops when they want to, that would make writing them off at this stage unwise. At the very least this album serves as a window to the better things in this duo’s future that will inevitably come with a bit more time and experience.
For fans of: The Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Pawn Shop’ by Brothers Osborne is released on 10th March on Spinefarm Records.