A few weeks ago, I saw a link posted on Twitter to stream a new song by The Swon Brothers called ‘This Side of Heaven,’ featuring guest vocals by Carrie Underwood. I listened, and my first reaction was: this is what mainstream country music needs right now. I was so impressed with that song that I jumped at the chance to review their debut album.
Colton and Zach Swon, who many might recognize from their third-place finish as part of Blake Shelton’s team on The Voice last year, hail from Muskogee, Oklahoma. They grew up down the street from Underwood, and have been performing since they were kids, touring with their family’s gospel group every weekend.
Their self-titled debut, released October 14th by Arista Nashville, is a bit of a mixed bag, but certainly one of the more promising debuts I’ve listened to in recent years. Produced by pop-country master Mark Bright, the album has already spawned a top 15 single in ‘Later On,’ and features songwriting by many well-known country hit-makers including Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley from Lady Antebellum, Jimmy Robbins, Jessi Alexander, Tommy Lee James and more.
‘Later On,’ though lyrically comparable to the current bro-country trend (“How about you and I get this thing movin’, shakin’, ‘groovin’ / Baby, tell me what you’re doin’ / Later on”), is sonically enjoyable and reminiscent of Lady Antebellum’s bouncy country-pop debut album. ‘What I’m Thinking About’ and ‘Songs That Said It All’ are both pleasant and inoffensive, if not a bit forgettable, a theme that runs throughout much of this album. For the most part, it’s all pleasant to listen to, but after a while it fades into the background, evoking thoughts of “I’ve heard this before, haven’t I?”
A few songs, however, stand out big time, in both good and bad ways.
‘95’ is easily the worst track on the album. With lyrics like “A little chill, kick it back, unwind / Let’s put this day on ice” and vocals that sound completely different from the rest of the album, I thought for a moment my music player had somehow switched to a Florida Georgia Line song. Which, if you know me, is not a good thing – I’m lucky if I make it through 30 seconds of one of their songs without changing the station or putting it on mute.
The brothers are at their best when they slow things down a bit and don’t worry about chasing any current trends. Their beautiful harmonies soar on ‘Pray For You,’ an uplifting song encouraging love and prayer instead of judgement when you don’t agree with someone’s choices. And you can feel the emotion in Zach and Colton’s voices on the breakup ballad ‘Breaking’. Despite its pop sheen, ‘Pretty Beautiful’ is an album highlight for me, with gorgeous falsetto vocals sprinkled throughout.
The album ends on its highest note, ‘This Side of Heaven’. A story song filled with heartbreaking honesty (“Sometimes it feels like God don’t hear us calling out for help / Sometimes this side of heaven is hell”) and vocals riddled with emotion, this song proves that despite a few missteps here and there, The Swon Brothers have got a lot of talent to offer.
If they can focus on material with more substance like ‘This Side of Heaven’ and ‘Pray For You,’ and less on party songs filled with clichés like ’95’ or ‘Later On,’ I think The Swon Brothers could be one of the best and most promising new duos country music has seen in a long time. The promise is there; now let’s hope the execution matches up.