Zach and Colton Swon finished in 3rd place on the 2013 season of NBC’s ‘The Voice’. Championed by Blake Shelton, and signed to Arista they released their debut album, a solid set of modern Country tunes, in 2014 and were all set to become Dan & Shay before Dan & Shay were! By late 2015 they had parted ways with Arista after the album underperformed and differences arose in what the next steps should be.
2016 saw the brothers release ‘Timeless’, an independent EP that seemed to lose some of the focus and quality that was a hallmark of their debut album. The title track was good but most of the other songs were a bit wishy-washy middle of the road. 2017 sees them return with a new EP, ‘Pretty Cool Scars’, and I am pleased to report that this is their strongest and most diverse set of songs yet. If this release doesn’t see them back on a major label I will be surprised, given the popularity of acts on the poppier end of the Country spectrum at the moment.
‘Pretty Cool Scars’ begins with ‘Dwight Trashed’, a retro romp paying homage to some of the brothers’ 90’s influences like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Randy Travis and the aforementioned Dwight Yoakham. A honky tonk song about a dive bar and its glorious juke box that only plays songs recorded in the 90’s, ‘Dwight Trashed’ has clever lyrics and a real bar room feel, different to anything the brothers have recorded thus far. Clever lyrics, integrating the names of the singers into lines about the bar, compete with piano and guitar to start the EP off with a blast. My favourite line is, “it’s a randy travesty, that they gotta shut her down at 3, still singing guitars and cadillacs, yeah, we’re getting Dwight trashed!”
Second song, ‘Don’t Call Me’, has gone to Country radio. Quieter and more typical of the Swon Brothers’ usual sound, it contains nice harmonies in a modern sounding setting and has a very radio friendly, sing along chorus. It adds to the growing bank of Country songs about phone calls and heartbreak and should make some headway without being the strongest of tracks on offer here.
That accolade must surely go to track 3, the title track, ‘Pretty Cool Scars’. A Dierks Bentley like opening sees vocals driven by an insistent drum beat and then the song explodes in the first chorus. “It’s written on our hands and beat up hearts, in pretty cool scars”. Soaring vocals, electric guitar and plenty of gang ‘who ohs’ put this track firmly into the category of ‘Country Anthem’. Live, I imagine, it will be immense, a real fist in the air type, sing your heart out type of song. Possibly the best song the brothers have ever recorded and one that deserves exposure.
Track 4 sees another mood shift in what has been a diverse listen so far. ‘Take Off’ is essentially a waltz. A slow song about being in love and lust. “Your curves make it hard to be cool, let’s let the curtain fall down, let’s say goodbye to the ground, let’s take off.” The first ballad on the EP and a tender, meaningful expression of love wrapped in an interesting package, not your average Country ballad.
The mood shifts again with the penultimate track, ‘About Last Night’. This song is pure Thomas Rhett. Finger clicks and funky guitars drive it forward, a song about two friends who take their relationship beyond the normal bounds of friendship! A big, radio friendly chorus should mean this one also receives some airplay and is better than anything Dan & Shay have ever recorded, but keep that quiet for fear of reprisals from their devoted fan base!
Closing track, ‘Gold’, is the second ballad on offer on the EP. More traditional and modern than ‘Take Off’, I think this could also be a huge radio hit given the right exposure and a following wind. Modern programming and big, big, vocals make this a surefire radio gem in my eyes and could provide another avenue back to the major labels, it being as good as, if not better, than most songs surfing the airwaves these days. “As long as the fire’s inside us, keep making diamonds from coal and turn tonight into gold.”
‘Pretty Cool Scars’ is easily the best thing the Swon Brothers have ever recorded. It’s diverse sounding and yet there is a continuity running through it that binds it together tighter than their previous work. It contains everything from honky-tonk nods to the past to modern sounding, radio friendly hits. The lyrics are well thought out and interesting, not full of Country clichés or well trodden mentions to things like Live Oak trees. It’s modern yet respectful, quiet yet anthemic and if some major label on Music Row doesn’t welcome these boys back into the fold then I don’t know what you have to do in 2017 to get another crack at Nashville notoriety.
James Daykin (@rockjames)