Saturday, September 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1050: Jason Isbell

Sorry for the delay in reviews, gentle reader, but I’ve been on the road, seeing a whole bunch of bands and buying a whole bunch of music.

Sheila and I went to San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver to see a football game (49ers/Panthers) as well as three concerts. One of those concerts was Jason Isbell, and to read a review simply scroll to the bottom of the album review below.

I also saw a bunch of other cool bands, including Frank Turner, Sparkbox, the Francis Luke Accord and Trapper Schoepp and there wasn’t a bad apple in the box. Since I bought a bunch of albums by these bands, look for similar reviews to this one coming soon…

And when you get tired of those reviews, don’t worry. I found about 20 albums worth of music I’ve been looking for at such great record stores as Amoeba Records in San Francisco and Everyday Music in Portland. Amoeba in particular is an awe-inspiring display of music and a must-see if you are a music fan in San Francisco. Many thanks to my friend Mack for the recommendation.

Enough of this. Let’s get to talking about one of the best albums of 2017 so far, and one of the best concerts I’ve seen this year as well.

Disc 1050 is…The Nashville Sound
Artist: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? It’s like a poster for one of those heist movies like Oceans 11. Maybe the 400 Unit is going to rob the Grand Ole Opry!

How I Came To Know It: I was already a fan of Jason Isbell when this came out so it was just me buying his new release.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Jason Isbell albums and all of them are fantastic, but the Nashville Sound is his best yet, so #1.

Ratings: 5 stars

Over the last six years Jason Isbell has released four albums, with each one better than the last. That trajectory to excellence culminates (for now) with “The Nashville Sound,” an Isbell opus that is heart-wrenching, thought-provoking and altogether sublime.

Like the band where he got his start (The Drive-By Truckers) Isbell’s sound is a mix of southern rock and alt-country. The combination provides a wider palette of musical experience than you might expect with guitar driven rock, sweeping ballads and painful confessionals.

Even though many of the songs are narratives about fictional characters, Isbell’s intensely personal writing style makes it impossible to separate his own experiences from those of his characters. Recovering from alcohol abuse and making a fresh start, the record maintains a delicate balance between fresh optimism and wince-inducing regret.

Musically, the record has an easy roll to it, with musicians that are clearly comfortable playing with one another and who find the groove with grace. Flourishes of guitar licks and violin cuts layer light brush strokes over top of traditional rock and country rhythms creating a lattice-work of sound that never sounds busy, but keeps your ear engaged all the same. With the instruments perfectly balanced in the mix, you can fall into this music and explore as deep as you want and even on multiple listens there’ll still be something new to catch your fancy.

Or you can just follow along with the great storyteller Jason Isbell, as he sings his high airy drawl.  Isbell’s vocal power is underrated, and he sings every word with conviction.

In 2016 Isbell’s former band, the Drive-By Truckers released their own masterpiece about the American cultural landscape with “American Band” (reviewed back at Disc 932) but as great as that record was, Isbell has taken it to a new level.

Where “American Band” took a direct and unapologetic look at the problems they see in their society, Isbell’s approach is slightly more oblique, but even more powerful. This is an album that is filled with doubt, as Isbell explores race relations (“White Man’s World”) and the challenges of a changing landscape for blue collar America (“Last of My Kind”). There are no easy answers here, just a man expressing confusion about what comes next, what still matters and why.

This album finds Isbell recently sober and a father as of 2015, and clearly reborn with a newfound sense of purpose. “Molotov” has Isbell making a newfound commitment to a healthy lifestyle after years of hard living. He artfully contrasts the power of a bottle of liquor to destroy you, and the love of a good woman to build you back:

“I broke a promise to myself
To ride the throttle ‘til the wheels came off
Burn out like a Molotov in the night sky.
I broke a promise to myself
And made a couple to a brown-eyed girl
Who rode with me through this mean old world
Never say die.”

Brilliant as “Molotov” the album’s masterpiece is “If We Were Vampires.” The song captures both the height of sadness and romance in a single concept – that we aren’t going to live forever, but the briefness of what we’ve got is what makes it so poignant. As Isbell puts it:

“It’s not the long flowing dress that you’re in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong”

“It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

I can’t even type the words without getting a lump in my throat, and Isbell’s singing takes it to a whole other level.

This is an album about so many interconnected things: characters trying to find their way in the world, a contemplation on what kind of world we want that to be, and of all the doubts and anxieties that are a daily part of being human, but not the only part. As Isbell sings on “Hope the High Road

“I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired and likely mad as hell
But wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again.”

The Nashville Sound refuses to provide easy answers; it isn’t even sure there are any answers. But in exhorting us to walk the high road, it is one of the most inspiring albums I’ve ever heard.

Best tracks: All tracks, although.

The Concert – September 11, 2017 – Keller Auditorium, Portland

Given how much I loved the new album, and the fact that the show featured not one, but two of my favourite current acts (the opener was Frank Turner) expectations were high for me on this show. For me it was like the alt-country/indie equivalent of the Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult tour in 1980. At 10 years old, I missed that show but there was no way I was missing this one, and Sheila and I built our travel itinerary around making sure we were there.

So did it measure up to the hype in my mind? Yes it did.

Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls

The opening act was Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. When I saw Frank Turner in 2015 at the Neptune in Seattle it was one of the greatest live shows I’d ever seen, and I was curious to see how he was going to translate his talents from a dance hall style venue into a sit-down auditorium and adjust going from headliner to opening act.

The answer was: artfully. Turner is a born showman, and despite coming out to an audience that was about 80% Jason Isbell fans, he seized the place with a raw energy from the get go, rocking out self-affirming anthems like “The Next Storm,” “Recovery” and “Get Better” with a pure joy that got the auditorium’s attention.

Frank is known for getting his audience participating, which was exactly what his hard-core fans expect, but I could tell a good chunk of the Jason Isbell audience wasn’t sure what to make of him. Also, there were more than a few sidelong glances at the Frank Turner army sprinkled through the auditorium singing “we’re not dead yet!” back at their hero in a jubilant, boisterous – and occasionally in tune – fashion.

Through the course of his 9-10 song set, Frank won most of the audience over. He brought a woman up on stage at random and let her play a harmonica solo, and anticipating most of the audience didn’t know just how to sing the “oh-oh-oh-ohs” in “Josephine” he just gave them one note to make noise, and those more knowledgeable filled in the blanks.

He’s better as a headliner in a place where you can dance, but this was still amazing.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

By the time Jason Isbell took the stage, I was more than a little amped up from Frank, but while Isbell’s delivery is a bit more down-home and countrified he kept the energy up. He was also every bit as emotionally true and impactful as Frank, which is no easy task.

Loving his new album as much as I do, I was pretty excited that he played almost the entire record, mixing in three or four songs off of each of his earlier releases along the way for variety. These songs were just the right mix of deep cuts and crowd favourites.

Highlights included heart-wrenching versions of “Elephant” (a song about dying of cancer off of his 2013 album “Southeastern”), “Speed Trap Town” (off of 2015’s “Something More Than Free” and “If We Were Vampires” off the current album. Every one of them put tears in my eyes.

I was disappointed Isbell’s wife and the 400 Unit’s violin player, Amanda Shires, wasn’t with the band but they did a solid job of subtly adjusting the arrangements so the gap wasn’t noticeable. Also guitar player Sadler Vaden, who has a Mike Campbell kind of sound, dropped some solid solos. Isbell is also accomplished on the guitar and the two of them traded lead duties back and forth all night to good effect.

Isbell had the right amount of banter and his Alabama drawl and aw-shucks demeanor are relaxing and authentic.

The only negative musically was during the encore, which I thought was a bit over-amped, but other than that the sound mix was top-notch the whole night.

Visually, there was a surprisingly cool light show, complete with a big tattoo-style anchor design on the back wall that flashed hypnotically in all kinds of different colours.

The fans were appreciative but they weren’t going to break any records for loudest audience. Again, the emotional separation that comes from too much i-Phone recording and not enough soaking in the music was a bit distracting. The guy beside me filmed and took pictures but never applauded once for either artist. It was weird, but whatever.

I would see Isbell again in a heartbeat, though. He is an accomplished songwriter who plays a mean guitar solo, and he sings live with an earnest grace. Taken together with Turner as the opener, this was one of the better concerts I’ve seen in this or any year.

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