For as uneven as it can be, there’s still something so magnetising about Brothers Osborne’s debut Pawn Shop. In the sterilised cesspit of modern country, to have an act unafraid to try both pensive, delicate indie-country and swaggering country-rock was such a great sight to see, and even if not everything on that debut landed, the presence of some truly excellent tracks and even a few charting crossovers put a lot of ears on a duo that really had something going for them. Even if it was yet to be refined, the signs were still there.
With Port Saint Joe then, refinement seems to be the name of the game, this time substituting any greater sonic shifts for more equable, pleasant country tones seemingly designed to soundtrack oncoming lazy summer days. It makes sense given how it’s the same mould as Stay A Little Longer and 21 Summer, two of the biggest draws on Pawn Shop, and sized down to a lean ten tracks would ensure this wouldn’t be too taxing. And that’s pretty much the case here, with Port Saint Joe having fewer obvious highlights than its predecessor, but in being more consistent, it’s arguably the better album overall.
Of course, not everything has been improved here, most noticeably the production, in which Jay Joyce continues to coat what could be a much more raw, rough sound in extraneous layers of polish. It’s perhaps a bit less of an issue this time seeing as the majority of country-rock roars have been cut back, but with the tart banjo plucks on Tequila Again or the incredibly lightweight organ whirrs on A Little Bit Trouble, there’s more than enough room here to inject some extra snarl to match TJ Osborne at his harshest. But truth be told, while tracks like Shoot Me Straight and Drank Like Hank see a return to a southern-rock-tinged brand of ragged heave (particularly the extended jam session to close out the former which is genuinely excellent), Port Saint Joe’s sense of restraint and lightness still work well. Spacious, mid-tempo tones dominate, that gives a sense of calming plaintiveness on Weed, Whiskey And Willie and Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive), or in the sticky, staccato island grooves of A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright, a sense of fun that didn’t have a chance to blossom on their debut. This is the sort of sonic consistency that’s indicative of a band growing and learning their strengths, and in terms of atmosphere alone, this is the best that Brothers Osborne have sounded, at least on a full release.
That said, this sort of sound doesn’t naturally indicate an album with much intelligence, and Port Saint Joe isn’t exactly bucking against that notion. Content-wise, this is a light as the instrumentation would suggest, primarily boiling down to drinking, finding love and a general mood of relaxation and letting life flow by. The duo rarely twist these into any new or innovative takes, but honestly, they don’t really need to, as there’s enough evocative emotions and mood already to work in their favour. Weed, Whiskey And Willie might be as basic as they come in terms of highlighting the necessities of southern life, but there’s something so poignant about its slow sway that has just a bit more impact, a similar case to the wistful acoustic closer While You Still Can. Of course, these are balanced out by the comparative rowdiness of Shoot Me Straight and Drank Like Hank, but even then, there are reservations here so to not completely fly off the rails; they feel considerably tamer than the out-and-out debauchery of Pawn Shop’s It Ain’t My Fault. And yet, this is a good level of compromise, tamping down some of the rougher edges while keeping the spirit there; this is a sound that could become a mainstream crossover, but it’s not solely designed for that.
That’s probably what makes Port Saint Joe such an enjoyable listen overall – it’s hugely accessible but done in an organic way. And while that’s pretty much par for the course for Brothers Osborne, there’s progression that comes from zeroing in on their strengths and doing them to the best of their abilities. Granted, this isn’t the country-rock classic they’re more than capable of making (even though it can feel like their own reticence to go too far in holding them back in this regard), but as a step in the right direction, Port Saint Joe is exactly what this second album needed to be.
For fans of: Blackberry Smoke, Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown Band
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Port Saint Joe’ by Brothers Osborne is out now on Snakefarm Records.