Monday, February 16, 2009

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's Self Titled Record Review - Due out 2/17/09

Release date: 2/17/09

Often an artist's 2nd album offering is called a 'sophomore' release with the unfortunate 'slump' following as the assumption is that the 2nd edition hardly ever lives up to an artist's 'freshman' debut.

However, with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's upcoming, self titled record there's nothing 'sophomore' or 'slumpish' about it.

Its very difficult to apply 'sophomore' to valedictorian and DBT road veteran Isbell, a man made for grade skipping. Hell, Isbell is so smart he figured out a way to insert a coda track into the middle of JI400-self titled.

With roots firmly planted in the sticky Alabama red clay of Sirens of the Ditch, JI400-self titled takes on familiar themes and sounds but with variations and branches of freshness that are all at once exciting, informing and audibly, utterly delightful.

I personally title this record Bridges of Lauderdale County due to the excellent musical bridges that inhabit virtually all of the tracks on JI400-self titled.

The albums first cut, "Seven Mile Island, is a North Alabama geographical reference, an Isbell staple, and also serves as an ode to recently passed, harmonica extraordinaire Topper Price. SMI is full of texture and sound with tom-tom beats supplied by Matt Pence of Cento-Matic reflecting the Native Americans who once inhabited this stretch of land on the Tennessee River and the tinkling of keys by Derry deBorja which calls to mind the eddys that swirl around the banks of this damn produced isle.... and hand claps. I mean, come on, who don't like hand claps in a song!

The track 'Sunstroke', one of my favorites on the new album, contains a bridge which tom-tom tumbles the listener into the depths of the Tennessee River as Isbell sings "Tell me you walk on the water, now", almost a messiahistic plea to be saved, before releasing said listener to pop up to the serene, early morning glass surface of a river still asleep, but caught in a lazy dream as Isbell croons "And here it is morning for some folks". Again, the song is sonically complex and one that requires repetitious listening. Listen for the birds on this one. Good stuff.

"Good", an uptempo rocker rushes along as the protagonist in the chorus states 'I can't make myself be good, I wish I could'. A tornado coming after a petrified old tree. Another great bridge on this one that kicks the end of the tune up a notch.

"Cigarettes and Wine" is a long, tall drink of country. Grab a bottle and your sorrows on this one.
"Money and likker and lust, have taken my heart and my trust".

"However Long" is a rocker. Isbell and company take on the douchebags in our society and gives 'em all a lyrical middle finger. Love this tune:

"There's nothing that you can say or do to us to drown out this 'Amen'.
'Cause however long the night, The dawn will break again."

"The Blue" is another favorite. Bonnie Raitt would give her left teat to of written this back in her hey-day. But it wouldn't have been nearly as good without Isbell's vocals and the harmony that goes along with. As with "However Long", "The Blue" takes the bad and twists it on its head to squeeze some ever-living art/poetry out of it. Pence's rim shots in this song harkens to a metronome and a grandfather clock giving the listener the sense that there's all the time in the world and hardly any time left at all. The bridge in this song makes me want to spread my arms to the heavens and sway. And, it has one of the best lines in the entire album:

"Please dance, so I don't have to think...."

"No Choice in the Matter" is Muscle Shoals soul. Period. Muscle Shoals Soul taken out to the woods and distilled into a clear liquid. And there ain't a man or woman alive that won't relate in the nearest and dearest of terms to the story that is told. Actually, another one of my favorites and the bridge is... just goddamn. Good enough to sober up Winehouse... possibly.

"But you can't tell a man a thing. He's pickin' out diamond rings".

Oh baby, have I been there, done that.

"Soldiers Get Strange". This song will be on the iPod of every solider that has been to our country's twin hell holes of wars. A cathartic tune detailing the hell that war brings home in the form of PTSD. Good on Jason for writing this one.

"Streetlights" is a beautiful song. Another favorite. Something Mellencamp (the best of) about this song that I can't put my finger on. Much more complicated musically than Mellencamp, but there's something......

Lastly comes the terrifying 'The Last Song I Will Write'. Terrifying because before a listen to the story told, one may assume that this is a GBCW (Good by cruel world) song by Jason. Terrifying to think that Isbell wouldn't ever write another song. But, that ain't the case. It is only in the song.

Can't say enough about Pences' drums, deBorja's keys, Jimbo's thump, Lollar's guitar and backing vocals (Lollar also created the beautiful artwork for the album. He's a massive all-around talent) and Isbell's vocals that ooze so much soul it'll have you searching for the perfect biscuit to sop it all up with.

Kudos, boys. A stretch of success longer than a seven mile island lies ahead.

Update with promo video produced by Corey Hannah:

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit SHORT promotional video from Corey Hannah on Vimeo.



Anonymous said...

I think it's the accordion in the background of "Streetlights" that's making you think of Mellencamp and his long-departed multi-instrumentalist John Cascella? Thanks for your blog, I don't know how you manage it.

AAW said...

Good ear, Josh.

I ask myself the 'management' question often.


Thanks for dropping by!