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Bay people are different than sea people. For those who grow up on an open coast, boundlessness is everyday reality; they pace themselves to the crash of waves originating in other time zones. Bay people have a more measured relationship to open spaces. They're still optimists, like anyone who knows what it's like to travel on water, defying the slow pace of footsteps on solid ground. But they can always see the distant outline of a shore. Bay people come to grasp the concept of contained infinitude — the tide still ebbs and flows unceasingly, and the deep remains mysterious, but it's navigable. It has form.
The Brothers Osborne are bay people, raised in the small Maryland town of Deale. According to a Washington Post article written about the town before John and T.J. Osborne made it a little bit famous, Deale is a "kick off your shoes kind of place where beards, tattoos and motorcycles coexist with polo shirts, deep tans and SUVs." This description fits the Brothers Osborne sound pretty well, too. It's mainstream country, polished enough for commercial radio and peppered with references (to quote one song title) to "weed, Willie and whiskey." But it's also an excellent Southern rock and roll jam, with soul flourishes, vocal cadences that show an awareness of hip-hop, and a blues underbelly. On the duo's second album, Port Saint Joe, it takes shape along a beautifully expansive sonic shoreline.
Honed through live performances that started when the thirtysomething siblings were just kids playing in their dad's party band, the Brothers Osborne sound taps into that bay vibe. It's loose, but carefully calibrated, respectful of rock and country legacies while gently leaning into them in new ways. On the band's award-winning and chart-topping 2016 debut album, Pawn Shop, the Brothers Osborne challenged country conventions mostly through a vibe: laid back, cool, never corny. That album was produced by Jay Joyce, known for his work with sly genre challengers like Little Big Town and Eric Church. For Port Saint Joe, Joyce and the brothers decamped to his home in the Florida hamlet that gives the album its title, recording on the beachfront property, where the band could take a break and walk out to the water's edge.
Bay people meet ocean: that's what happens on Port Saint Joe. The most obvious shift comes through a new focus on John Osborne's guitar playing, which is warm and relaxed like Duane Allman's, with enough heavy riffing added to prove he grew up in the '90s. "Shoot Me Straight," one of the album's biggest rockers, unfurls from John's stomping opening riff; the wittily melancholic "Tequila Again" shows him fingerpicking mandolin like a mountain master. Unlike much radio-friendly country, Port Saint Joe feels loose, unfettered by samples and studio tricks. But it's not arena-rocking the way Chris Stapleton's music often can be. It's more groove-based, conjuring thoughts of what Pearl Jam might have sounded like had that band come out of Nashville instead of Seattle.
TJ's voice is one reason the Pacific Northwest's finest comes to mind; his baritone often dips into Eddie Vedder territory, minus the quaver. He can funk things up (he's one of the few young singers who's pulled off a cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange") or croon until you cry; while the jams on Port Saint Joe are memorable, the tender moments shine, too, because of TJ's ability to go quiet and let mixed emotions breathe. There's "While You Can," a reminder to live in the moment that fans of the new Kacey Musgraves album will find compelling. Maybe even better is "A Little Bit Trouble," a placid seduction that Mac Davis might have made a hit in 1975, modernized with just a hint of studio affects.
Writing with hitmakers like Shane McAnally, Connie Harrington and Barry Dean as well as 21st-century honky-tonkers Travis Meadows and Kendell Marvel, the Brothers Osborne find new ways into contemporary country parlance. "Tequila Again" is a love song to partying that's really a subtle portrait of a drinking problem. "A Couple Wrongs Makin' It All Right" taps into funk's playfulness for its tale of mismatched love. In the hands of another country act, these themes would have been played out with bluster. But the Brothers Osborne are bay people, after all. They ride the current with steady hands.