Monday, February 19, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1107: Jason Isbell

I was supposed to spend last weekend watching the Boston Bruins play the Vancouver Canucks. However, a storm blew up and high winds cancelled our flights so we never even made it out of town.

Instead I paid $400 to stay home, hang out with friends and play board games. I consider it $400 well spent. As for the game, I didn’t miss anything after all because the Bruins lost.

Disc 1107 is… Here We Rest
Artist: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Put a bird on it! It’s a painting by Browan Lollar, who also played guitar on the record. Lollar was part of Isbell’s backing band, the 400 Unit, for only this one album. That’s too bad, because this is some pretty sweet bird art.

What kind of bird is it? I’m no John James Audubon but I’m going to guess that these are…American Goldfinches. These two are either fighting over a piece of ribbon or planning to build a nest with it. Because I’m a romantic I’m going to with the latter.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Jason Isbell in 2015 when he released “Something More Than Free” (reviewed back at Disc 1088). This was just me drilling through his back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Jason Isbell albums. Of those four, “Here We Rest” ranks fourth. Hey, someone has to finish last.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes it takes an artist a few albums to fully find their voice and for me it was Jason Isbell’s third solo album that began to showcase the artist he would become. His storyteller’s heart reveals itself here, and while “Here We Rest” is uneven here and there it has more than enough natural brilliance to carry it through.

The album opens strong with “Alabama Pines.” I prefer Isbell’s work after “Here We Rest” but “Alabama Pines” is a timeless classic that equals anything you’ll hear on any of the three classic albums that follow. Here he learns to strip down a song, letting his songwriting shine through, mixing the locomotive-like boom-chuck Johnny Cash rhythm with his signature high and airy vocals.

Alabama Pines” also showcases Isbell’s natural talent to turn a phrase and make an image that serves a story evocative in its own right. When he sings “I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline” you are struck that sometimes desires feel like they do need gasoline. Yeah, it makes them flammable and hazardous, but it also fuels them.

The album showcases Isbell’s love of the blues, and the guitar work on “Go It Alone” is solid and tastefully understated. He takes a more traditional barroom blues style on “Never Could Believe” that feels a little dated, but there’s no denying the guitar work despite the song not being one of my favourites. Even when he is playing a more Americana style, Isbell’s love of the blues comes through in his subject matter; hard scrabble lives of characters with bad habits and bad choices.

On “Codeine” a man knows his woman isn’t coming home so long as she can get a fix from an erstwhile friend down the road. The girl in “Daisy Mae” seeks succor from a dangerous man while fleeing an even darker situation.

In the middle of the album there is the inexplicable “The Ballad of Nobeard” which is a Tom Waits style accordion that stands out like a sore thumb and feels more indulgent than purposeful. However, since it is all over and done within 27 seconds it is easy to forgive. “Ballad of Nobeard” leads into a few of the weaker songs on the back half of the record where Isbell is in danger of losing all the momentum gained to that point.

Fortunately, things recover at the end with another galloping rhythm playing backdrop to a subtle character study with “Tour of Duty.” The song features a veteran returning from war, and evokes a mix of hope for the future with the recognition that there are going to be some struggles adapting to a simpler life. Isbell takes that excitement you get when you see your loved one after a long absence multiplies it by a thousand and then tints the edges of the experience with an optimism born in sorrow.

This ability to paint nuance where a lesser songwriter would steer exclusively to patriotism or tragedy is what makes Isbell great. Knowing he is just going to get better and better from here made me appreciate “Here We Rest” all the more.

Best tracks: Alabama Pines, We’ve Met, Codeine, Daisy Mae, Tour of Duty

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