Hear/Here: John Prine, Courtney Barnett and Maps & Atlases

John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

John Prine’s first album of new material in 13 years is a great place to start with the legend’s career, as it kind of covers the ground of the sometimes funny, sometimes terribly sad songs he’s known for. Working with Dave Cobb (known for producing both Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton) Prine focuses on the mundanities of everyday life, and some of those songs like the humorous “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” and the tender “I Have Met My Love Today” is a gorgeous little love song that comes and goes in under two minutes. “Summer’s End” is probably one of the most beautiful, weightless ballads I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a record that’s a small gift, one that you’re welcome to have but did not at all expect. That’s the best kind.

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett’s output is usually a sure thing – which is why it’s strange her latest, Tell Me How You Really Feelis weirdly disappointing. It’s not bad, it just lacks the punch found on 2015’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. “Hopefulessness” is a strange, dissonant opener that casts a bit of a pall over the record, while first single “Nameless, Faceless” is a fine midtempo rocker that’s hook doesn’t really burrow in, say, like the classic “Pedestrian at Best”. There are some great moments like “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence” buoyed by contributions by Kelley and Kim Deal and the relationship ballad “Need a Little Time”. It has been home run after home run until now. It’s just a bit of a bummer to hear Barnett sound tired and and actually a little bored. Sure, she’s sang about it, but it’s never really felt like it until now.

Maps & Atlases – Lightlessness is Nothing New

Chicago natives Maps & Atlases first new release in six years shows them down a member and finding that their tightly constructed guitar and rhythm pieces turning up to something a little brighter and buoyant with synths taking more of a larger role in their sound. First single “Fall Apart” sounds just as slick and rubbery as singer/guitarist Dave Davison’s voice, while “Ringing Bell” has a mechanical riff with a punchy rhythm accompaniment that will sound great coming out of a car stereo. It’s an album where Maps & Atlases just *sounds* the biggest they’ve ever been. They’ve always had the chops. All that extra time produced something really great.

Hear/Here: New Hop Along, Young Fathers, Kacey Musgraves and Wye Oak

Hop Along – Bark Off Your Head, Dog

Hop Along have been on a tear since the release of their 2012 debut, Get Disowned and came to proper prominence with 2015’s Painted Shut, a showcase of a young band coming into their own, and placing the extraordinary voice of singer/guitarist Frances Quinlan center stage. It’s a low-key classic in it’s own right, so the release of Bark Off Your Head, Dog comes with some high expectations. Happily, it doesn’t disappoint.

The nine-song collection adds some new hues to Hop Along’s rapidly kaleidoscoping sound – the rawboned riffs of the first single “How Simple,” the acoustic guitar and strings of the gorgeous “How You Got Your Limp” and the funky-mathy rhythms of “The Fox in Motion”. Then there’s some littler experiments: “What the Writer Meant” starts with brushed drums that break into a gorgeously power-pop chorus while “Look of Love” fucks with some serious psychadelic-era Beatles harmonies. Bark Off Your Head, Dog is album that pushes Hop Along forward, showing band striving to find what’s possible in their sound, opposed to making something that sounds like them. It makes sense – that’s never quite been their DNA. Hop Along sound a bit restless here, but that’s why it works. It’s very clear that Bark Off Your Head, Dog is just the tip of the iceberg.

Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

Every once and a while there will be an album that pretty much levels the musical plane, one that becomes an earworm in the most serious of ways, rendering everything else kind of secondary. For me, right now, that is “Cocoa Sugar” by Young Fathers.

It’s hard to classify exactly what genre the Edinburgh, Scotland-based group are, because they encompass so many different ones at once. It’s a little hip-hop, it’s a little indie rock, and then there’s some weird touches of R&B. They won the Mercury Prize in 2014 for their debut album Dead and were featured prominently on last year’s Trainspotting 2 soundtrack. “Cocoa Sugar” is a densely layered collection melding Gospel choirs, skitter-stop raps and Radiohead-inspired sound beds.

I keep coming back to it time and time again because I’m always hearing something a little different each time. There’s not really any sort of comparison I can make for it from anywhere. Listen to “In My View” for some burnout balladry, the buzzing aria of “Lord” or the narcotic daze of “Wow”. It all changes from song to song and it couldn’t come from anywhere else. Don’t sit on this record or this group. It’s an excellent record which centers them on the cusp of greatness. They’re building a hell of a case for it.



Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Let’s get it out of the way: Believe the hype. All of Kacey Musgraves’s records are the real deal – slices of contemporary country that don’t sound like shit and hint at something greater and more progressive. Hint no more. Golden Hour is Musgraves best and most fully realized record, one that transcends country, or any genre really, with the focus on crystalline songwriting, gorgeous arrangements and something entirely different with the startling disco bump of “High Horse”. It’s the defining career achievement of which there are already many moments that have had that mantle previously. Just don’t waste any more time not listening to it.

Wye Oak – The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs

Wye Oak have never made the same record twice, and on The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, it’s not about to change. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack grow by leaps and bounds on each release, and this, their first proper studio album since 2014’s Shriek has them taking the synth heavy sounds of that record and Wasner’s excellent Flock of Dimes side project and bridging that with the hypnotic drum and guitars found on 2011’s classic Civilian in a way that sounds panoramic. “Lifer” sounds like a conservative synth track before it blows wide open into Wasner’s gargantuan guitar solo, while “Symmetry” sounds like a track from an 80’s action flick doused in nightmare fuel and lit ablaze. Wye Oak always make records worth checking out. Dig right in and stay for a while. This one is damn near untouchable.

What I’m Listening To: February 2018

Lucy Dacus – Historian

I first heard about Lucy Dacus the way a lot of people hear about new bands: from the playlist of the 2016 VP-nominee, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Seriously. He included her song “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” on a streaming playlist. Turns out his daughter is friends with Dacus. Obligatory next door neighborly plug it wasn’t: Dacus’s 2016 debut No Burden is seriously great. Historian is even better.

The Richmond based singer-songwriter builds on the confidence and songcraft of her debut by re-teaming with producer Collin Pastore, which was then mixed with John Congleton, who is known for his work with St. Vincent, among others. The result is a record that feels weightier and enveloping in sound opposed to the lo-fi sounds of No Burden. Dacus is 22, but the rich tone of her voice begets a singer whose doing it much longer. From the chugging opener “Night Shift,” a classic breakup song – “You got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift/And I’ll never see you again if I can help it/In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/Dedicated to new lovers” the sweeping, gorgeous “Body to Flame” and pop bite of “Next of Kin” – “I am at peace with my death/I can go back to bed”. It’s a career defining collection that’s worthier than the words written here, or like she says on “Addictions” – “invest your time in what’s worthwhile”. Historian might be the album of the year.

Titus Andronicus – A Productive Cough

If you’ve followed Titus Andronicus for a few record cycles, you know they tend to work on an odd-even structure: They start with a relatively straightforward rock record (2008’s The Airing of Grievances) coupled by an ambitious high concept record (2010’s all-timer The Monitor). Repeat with 2012’s Local Business and follow it up with the even more ambitious The Most Lamentable Tragedy, released in 2015. The band’s latest A Productive Cough seems like the most personal record yet from Patrick Stickles, something that plays less like a shambolic punk collection and more like “Exile on the New Jersey Turnpike”. “Number One (In New York)” is a bombastic opener that never really crests, while “Real Talk” feels a lot like the Stones “Rip This Joint”. “Crass Tattoo” pretty much eschews Stickles’s vocal, instead, sung by Megg Farrell who brings the house down. There’s also a really fun cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan that Stickles changes the tense to first person. It’s totally unnecessary, but what really is here? Ultimately, it’s a minor work in the Titus canon that will have its fans and detractors.

Caleb Caudle – Crushed Coins

If you haven’t heard Caleb Caudle yet, start here. The North Carolina native has been making records for years, but on his eighth, Crushed Coins, his classicist country voice bends to explore different genres. Whether it’s the Laurel Canyon expanse of “NYC in the Rain” or the 60’s psych elements of “Empty Arms,” Caudle winds them together with ease. Guided by the steady hand of producer Jon Ashley, Caudle’s made his best record yet. There’s so many great moments, but the stripped down acoustic ballad “Until It’s Over”, is probably the sweetest. “There’s a light inside of her/cuts through my darkness/steals away these broken blues/punch for punch I’ve got an honest love/it’s true,” Caudle sings. He nails the words exactly. Way to put the rest of us to shame, dude.

Also check out

Screaming Females – All at Once
Turnstile – Time & Space
Camp Cope – How to Socialise & Make Friends

Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive Handles the Turbulence with Confidence

The world feels like it’s coming apart at the seams, some new scandal or piece of terrible news hits daily, or sometimes with even more frequency. It takes more effort to simply keep up than it does just to be able to digest the news. The result is mind numbing. Then you look to find respite from these things. There’s music. Superchunk knows this well, and somehow they found a way to channel the rage and anxiety of this turbulent time in history into their 11th album, the sardonically titled What a Time To be Alive.

Since the band’s return to recording at the top of the decade after taking most of the ’00’s off, 2010’s Majesty Shredding reintroduced listeners to Superchunk as a punk band with power-pop leanings, but imbued with an immediacy that at times make them sound like a different band from their earlier years. This continues on the album’s opener, the title track, a cascading ripper which pretty much puts this administration in the crosshairs – “There’s a crooked line that runs/through every crease in this map/and you want to take us all the way back” singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan sings. There’s virtriol in his voice – by the time the chorus hits “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies/oh what a time to be alive”, there’s barely a moment to catch your breath.

Just as that song halts, the punk stomp of “Lost My Brain” begins. McCaughan echoes the sentiment felt by so many pretty early – “I surrendered to the flow of shit/I gave up all my all my sleep/and I didn’t learn anything from it”. It’s a sobering lyric, but the rhythm section of bassist Laura Ballance and drummer Jon Wurster are pummeling, keeping the band buoyant despite the desperation of the lyric. If it already wasn’t clear,”Lost My Brain” makes it crystal – this is an album about trying to make it day by day living under the Trump administration.

Yet, the record is hardly downcast. McCaughan is pissed, but many of the album’s angry statements are filtered through classic Superchunk – the hooky as hell earworm “Bad Choices” with guitarist Jim Wilbur’s zig-zag leads and the similarly catchy “Dead Photographers”. Among these is the soaring standout “Erasure,” which is like a Merge Records roster showcase with Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields guest on background vocals. What these songs all have in common is that Quicksilver energy and pitch perfect execution of a band who has played together for decades.

Perhaps that is what makes What a Time to be Alive a great record. Nearly thirty years in, Superchunk are not only still making music, but they’ve made a vital record that rivals even their classic material. It’s a near impossible task, yet they keep accomplishing it time and time again. Now, during a time where getting up every day means feeling like you have to brace yourself for something terrible, there’s a record that comes out swinging in the face of that ugliness. It’s an album referencing a time and a place that somehow feels timeless. Superchunk’s exuberance and confidence in pushing forward is a good example that everyone can learn from.

What a Time to Be Alive is out February 16 on Merge.

Favorite Songs of 2017 and Other Stuff

My Top Songs of 2017 playlist, favorite non-2017 discovery and Honorable Mention albums, as well as my Favorite Moments of 2017.

My Top Songs:

Also, 4:44 by Jay-Z.

Everything I Listened To:

I made a playlist for every month this year of everything I listened to individually (excluding albums). Check it out. This will have additions through December 31.

Favorite Non-2017 Discovery:

Silkworm – Lifestyle
Culture Abuse – Peach

Honorable Mention Albums:

Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
Daddy Issues – Deep Dream
Thundercat – Drunk
Cory Branan – Adios
Jay Som – Everybody Works
Iron Chic – You Can’t Stay Here
Worriers – Survival Pop
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
Telethon – The Grand Spontanean
Arcade Fire – Everything Now

Other Stuff

Personal: Writing for Noisey, being published in an actual magazine writing about music for the first time in New Noise Magazine. All the cool opportunities through Riot Fest, VinylMnky, Scene Point Blank and others. Seeing Springsteen on Broadway. I think about it every day. Hamilton on New Year’s Day. Meeting musicians I admire all year long.

Travel: Louisville, Memphis, New York a few times, my first trip to Vegas (which I loved). Eau Claire for a quick weekend trip (It’s a cool little town!)

Health and Wellness: PRing my fourth 5K on the April 29 Race to Wrigley. Going to the chiropractor, massage and acupuncture for the first time in my life.

The Hold Steady: Two residencies in Chicago and Brooklyn. The Empty Bottle show is and will remain a great and perfect show in my memory. Stage invasion. Helping develop the coffee blend with Dark Matter is a personal sense of pride for me. Brooklyn, also fun, crazy busy as usual. Watching everyone freak out about “Entitlement Crew” and “Snake in the Shower” was awesome, too.

Wrestling: Witnessing Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate at NXT Takeover: Chicago, Finn vs. AJ, Cena vs. AJ at the Rumble. Good shows generally all year. I purchashed my first Bullet Club shirt. Found myself watching less this year than last, but it was still very enjoyable and match quality is so good these days.

Food: SO MANY great spots.

Chicago area: Mi Tocaya Antojería, Fat Rice, Wyler Road, MingHin Cuisine, Bleuroot, River Street Tavern, Proxi, Big Jones

Cleveland: Bakersfield Cleveland, Sokolowski’s University Inn, Mabel’s BBQ

Eau Claire: The Lakely

Grand Rapids area: Spanky’s Pizza

Las Vegas: China Poblano, Yellowtail Sushi

Louisville: Grale Haus, Milkwood, Steel City Pops

Memphis: Hog and Hominy, Tops BBQ, Catherine and Mary’s

New York: Frankel’s Delicatessen, Má Pêche

Music: Trash Pandas released an album this year called Apocalypse Nah. No one bought it. We were very tired and in a hot basement.

Shows

I saw a personal record 47 shows this year. Take a look.

Favorite Albums of 2017

This year was an extraordinarily strong year for music, so much so that ranking my top 10 favorites was not an easy feat. That said, I included a supplementary 11-20 for some of my favorites from this year. I have linked to some of the reviews for some of those records below. Enjoy!

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

How do you describe an album that feels like a living document? A Deeper Understanding balances the line of immaterial and extraordinary weight, songs that feel huge in their emotion, sound and place, but have an incredible quality of reshaping themselves with every listen. The War on Drugs fourth album feels familiar – Dire Straits guitars, heartland rock propulsion with a Don Henley-esque delivery, but it’s not a tribute to those things. There’s something about it that combines these elements and infuses them with a feeling that’s impossible to explain without hearing. Frontman/mastermind Adam Granduciel labored for years combining synths, guitars, bass and drums that effortlessly weave into each other. Whether it’s the shimmering guitars that open “Pain,” the dramatic landscape of “Thinking of a Place,” or the E-Street Band-iness of “Holding On,” it runs the gamut of human emotion: It’s pensive, driving, achingly sad and at many points, euphoric.

Pick any of these instruments or emotions and follow the thread. Then replay the song and pick something else to immerse in. It’s a revelatory, choose-your-own-adventure listen. A Deeper Understanding is an album about feeling, understanding and exploring. It’s a prism that refracts its light in endless directions. No matter the approach, no two experiences will ever be the same.

2. Japandroids – Near to The Wild Heart of Life

Here’s the thing – Japandroids were never going to make another Celebration Rock, and it would be foolish to think they were going to in the first place, if ever make another record at all. After five years, what we did get was Near to the Wild Heart of Life, the third in the line of great Japandroids albums.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. The album still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers, acoustic guitars –just small touches that show the band was creating distance from the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums. In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

3. Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

On 2015’s Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker somehow was able to reinvent what it is what a songwriter can do with guitar and voice. Two years later on her follow up Turn Out The Lights, there’s a little more experience under her belt, but her songs – deep meditations on spirituality, mental health, relationships – and simply what it means to exist – pack an even stronger emotional wallop with the simple addition of piano, woodwinds and strings. “Appointments,” the album’s meditative first single hits an unforgettable climax, revealing an expressiveness in her voice not previously heard in her songs. The album’s title track continues this feels like it could be a full-throated punk ballad, but the guitar’s ambience bypasses that and sends it into the stratosphere. But it’s those moments that reveal an intense vulnerability that are the album’s best. “Hurt Less,” is a gorgeous piano ballad with backing vocals by her Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam. It’s a song about losing someone important and having to live with it.

Baker sings, “I just don’t want to be alone/And as long as you’re not tired yet/of talking, it helps to make it hurt less.” Julien Baker’s ability to take her emotions and filtering them with intense focus is only scratching the surface of what she’s capable of as a songwriter Take a seat. You’ll be grateful you did.

4. Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), M.C. Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.” Hiss Golden Messenger crafted a record to be the balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

5. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

6. The Smith Street Band – More Scared of You Then You Are of Me

Over three albums, The Smith Street Band, a Melbourne-based foursome have earned fans with emotionally unguarded songwriting that tiptoes the line between from totally moving to pure euphoria. Frontman Wil Wagner has never been one to pull punches with his confessional songwriting. On their fourth album, More Scared of You Than You Are of Me, Wagner and the band doubles down, creating their best record yet. On the unforgettable “Birthdays,” Wagner spells out his feelings pretty clear: “And I’ll be intense/And I’ll be too much/And I’ll get too high/And I’ll get too drunk/But in between episodes/I will love you more than anyone you have ever known” – it’s a perfect encapsulation of starting something new but setting expectation early. Those are things that sound scary in theory, but through the lens of a new relationship, their impact is dulled.

Immediately after is “Death to the Lads,” a shitkicking rocker with one of the most over-the-top hair-metal guitar solos in a punk song in recent memory. This is a band with a mastery of dynamic shifts – starting with the pensive light guitars that bloom into a march on “Passiona,” or the atmospheric “Run Into The World” where the band gets some vocal help from Laura Stevenson and Tim Rogers, many songs on the album seem to tide with Wagner’s full-throated delivery. But some of the most fascinating moments are when they step outside the box. The album’s closing track, “Laughing (Or Pretending To Laugh)”, is a classic New York story that finds Wagner with far more tender deliver. It feels like he’s letting us on a secret. The song never explodes, just gently crests, while he sings “And just because I’ve got a lot to learn/Does not mean that I am inherently a piece of shit/Just because I don’t think I know everything/Doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything”. Sure, he’s talking to someone specific, but it’s a good lesson to learn. With just a little foresight, tomorrow’s another chance to be better than yesterday.

7. Craig Finn – We All Want The Same Things

I’m obviously very close to this project, so I’ll make it brief. It’s the strongest solo record yet from CF – he has found a very game collaborator in Josh Kaufman. The songs feel lush and full, stories that hit hard where they need to. Tracks like the flute accented “Preludes” and “Be Honest” contain some of his best lines (“My password is be honest/my network is evolved,” while the sweet wash of synths on “Birds Trapped in the Airport” hint at a sound that couldn’t have been dreamt of from the sound of Hold Steady records. But all of this centers around the all-time great “God in Chicago,” a sad meditation that’s less song as it is story, exploring the aftermath of loss. Just listen to it and let the feelings wash over you.

8. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

If you’ve followed the career of Katie Crutchfield and her albums under the name Waxahatchee, it’s clear that she never rests on her laurels. Whether it’s the lo-fi intimacy of American Weekend, the assured full-band sound of Cerulean Salt or the atmospherics of Ivy Tripp, each record shows Crutchfield confidently adapting new elements to her sound. On her latest, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield makes Waxahatchee’s best album to date.

“Never Been Wrong,” the album’s opener, makes this abundantly clear. A distorted, plunging riff form the backbone of the song as Crutchfield’s voice takes front and center in the verse. It’s an awesome loud-quiet-loud rock song, full of driving guitars, pummeling bass and an insistent beat. Elements of Crutchfield’s earlier songwriting find a place here, albeit improved. Both “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” are built on beds of keys and percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ivy Tripp, but here they feel less weightless and more grounded, something only a seasoned musician and performer could pull off. Out in the Storm is the best work from a musician and songwriter who has grown up band-by-band, album-by-album in front of an audience through much of her adult life. Everything up until this point has shown Katie Crutchfield’s ability and brilliance, its an album that represents the point when Waxahatchee’s ambition and ability and confidence run alongside one another. Where she goes next is anyone’s guess. The bar has been raised. Out in the Storm sets it high.

9. The Menzingers – After the Party

We’re in the golden age of “crisis rock,” a term I’m playfully using about bands that write songs about the fading embers of youth, crystallizing when the sun starts to set on the familiar and new responsibilities and realities take hold. On “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track on The Menzingers latest record, they make the album’s thesis abundantly clear: “Where are we going to go when our twenties are over?”

The answer hits like a ton of bricks. After the Party is 13 songs that revive the feelings about being “in your adolescent room” rummaging “through the boxes labeled “former you”/The souvenirs of happiness in the moment” on “Your Wild Years,” the duality of living different lives to different people” “To everyone, you’re such a sweet church girl/But I know your secret” on the aptly titled “Bad Catholics,” among others. It’s a wistful, sometimes celebratory, often elegiac love letter to youth. The open-heartedness is palpable and authentic, but on “Lookers,” it feels personal. Co-vocalist Greg Barnett sings, “We were both lookers/In a 5″x8″ black and white/On the night stand of my mind/From a time I hardly recognize.” Suddenly, all those half-memories from high school and college come rushing back in full color.

10. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

After two major critical successes under his own name, Jason Isbell restores his backing band The 400 Unit to top billing on The Nashville Sound. It’s for good reason, returns, as they take more of a central role on Isbell’s songs. What’s immediate from the album is a sense of looseness in Isbell’s songwriting and the band’s playing that hasn’t really felt a part of their sound since 2011’s Here We Rest. Whereas songs on 2013’s Southeastern and its follow up, 2015’s Something More Than Free sounded great, but had a sort of insularity absent on the earlier 400 Unit albums. Album opener “Last of My Kind” fades in, as if you’re getting a glimpse of a group of people playing together in a room, as Isbell sings about being left behind by the changing world. The song picks up with subtle intensity with every verse. This naturalistic style of production is a hallmark of longtime producer Dave Cobb’s style – here, it reintroduces the The 400 Unit as, well, a unit.

“If We Were Vampires,” is an arresting duet between Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires. The song sounds gothic on title alone, it’s anything but. Essentially, it’s an acoustic ballad where Isbell and Shires ruminate on the limited time they have together while they’re alive. “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.” It’s spare, beautiful and nothing short of a classic.

“Anxiety” is a seven-minute epic about just what the title suggests. The guitars are stormy and the rhythms insistent. Isbell’s lyrics may be familiar to those who struggle with it: “You got to give me a minute/Because I’m way down in it/And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak/I want to be strong and steady, always ready/Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak”. They eventually give away to a furiously strummed bridge which kicks into a wily guitar solo. The lyrics, although familiar, may be a tough sell and with many artists shouldn’t have worked, but Isbell’s earnestness and the mastery of The 400 Unit sell it. The Nashville Sound is a record that may have gotten lost in the shuffle of a glut of great 2017 releases, but it is a testament to excellent songwriting from a group in its peak.

11. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
12. Priests – Nothing Feels Normal
13. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
15. The National – Sleep Well Beast
16. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
17. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
18. Ted Leo – The Hanged Man
19. Sincere Engineer – Rhombithian
20. The World Is A Beautful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign