Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Reinvent The Nashville Sound

Had Jason Isbell stopped making music after his run with the Drive-By Truckers, his output would have already been legendary enough. “Outfit,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” alone are inches away from being modern standards. After a few promising records in the midst of a drugs-and-booze phase, Isbell got clean and released Southeastern in 2013, a stunning record of recovery and personal and professional redemption, followed soon after by 2015’s Something More Than Free. Despite releasing these albums under his own name, his backing band The 400 Unit performed with him on those records. Now on his latest, The Nashville Sound, their top billing 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 Southeastern and it’s follow up sounded great, they had a sort of insularity absent on their earlier 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.

“Cumberland Gap,” is next, and it’s probably the most galvanic rocker that Isbell has written in some time. It has the propulsion of a later Springsteen and the E Street Band track, full of hardscrabble guitars and a soaring chorus. That’s not just only in the band’s sound. Isbell borrows from Springsteen’s populism, as Isbell sings about the working class, in this case, the families of miners.

Then there’s “If We Were Vampires,” 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. The sweet irony of the song is unlike the two that sing it, it will live forever.

“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 last two songs on The Nashville Sound are songs of great reflection – “Hope The High Road,” and “Something to Love”. On the upbeat “Hope The High Road,” Isbell takes stock of everything he’s learned over the years, through sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. “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.” It feels like a salve for the wounds inflicted on the world of the past few years, what feels an endless string of bad news. “Something to Love,” is very much a song where Isbell sings to his young daughter. Paired with Shires on background vocals, the parents sing about hoping she finds ‘something to love, something to do when you feel like giving up’. It’s a sweet and easy ballad, but it feels like the song order should be reversed. Maybe. “Hope the High Road” feels like a pep talk to everyone. “I’ve sang enough about myself,” he sings. Ok, fine. Makes sense. “Something to Love” is the denouement and a look into the future.

On The Nashville Sound, it’s clear his focus has shifted. It’s less about him, and more about his family. It’s remarkable watching Jason Isbell grow as both a person and a musician. Through his daughter, more stories are to be told. Perhaps as a result, Isbell’s next act will be even better than the first two.

Japandroids Return with the Right Album at the Right Time

It’s a weird feeling to be in transition: constantly thinking about where to go next, the thrill of excitement just out of reach, and possibility feeling so endless that it’s overwhelming. What do you do?

With Near to the Wild Heart of Life, Japandroids first album in almost five years, that feeling of being flux is everywhere – literally. Song titles contain words like “near” “to” and one song is simply named “North East South West”. It’s a record about growing up, moving on, and exploding the tiny moments in life that feel so much bigger in retrospect than they do in the moment.

Both 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock faced some criticism for sounding somewhat piecemeal in their sequencing. The latest album represents the first time the band feels like they’ve done something deliberate – and it works. As two guys from Vancouver bashing out some of the most euphoric jams that could be made two people at a time. By slowing down and looking a little more inward, they have made something that really feels like an album, as they’ve detailed in notes for the release. “Side A and side B each follow their own loose narrative. Taken together as one, they form an even looser narrative, with the final song on side B acting as an epilogue.” While they’ve succeeded, they may have done it at the cost of throwing off any fans who were expecting Celebration Rock II.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. Make no mistake, this record 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 – the warped 7-minute “Arc of Bar” is a great example– and then another sound not found on previous Japandroids releases – acoustic guitar strums on the gorgeous “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will”. Just these small touches alone show that the band is taking small steps to distance themselves the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums.

Like every Japandroids record, this one feels kind of like a small miracle. They are a band who feels like they’re just on the verge of disappearing at any time. They make some of the most immediate and visceral sounding rock and roll and really seem to take that role seriously. Perhaps that’s why they take long gaps between albums with nary a hint of when they’ll resurface.

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.

Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is due out January 27, 2017 on Anti- Records, with a special early release for vinyl on January 24.

Four Days In The Life

I’m finally starting to decompress from a week in New York (that really began in Chicago the day before with improbably sharing a photo with Bruce Springsteen) where I saw the Hold Steady four times in four days at Brooklyn Bowl. As expected, it was an incredible (albeit sometimes stressful) experience, but that’s another story for a different day. What struck me is so much how so many people I came into contact with were really riding the wave of “nostalgia,” if you can call the celebration of a ten-year record just that. I suppose it’s possible, or it’s a sign of me aging, when I talked to more than one person that lamented for not being around for ‘the scene’, a series of what seemed to be halcyon days that really weren’t, more a lot of good times punctured by bad decisions or inexperience, but still remembered the same. Either way, I didn’t quite feel a hearkening back to the past as much as I did really love seeing so many lapsed fans that kind of tuned out at the turn of the decade when the future of the band seemed a little murky.

Photo by Rich Tarbell

Photo by Rich Tarbell

I mean, I get that, the early ‘10’s Hold Steady was a series of experiments that didn’t quite gel completely, trying to make due with Franz Nicolay’s departure and redefine a sound. But what we DID get is Steve Selvidge, a member of the band whose presence seems so vital it’s hard to imagine what the band would be like without him – the fact that Franz has returned to the fold with Steve in tow is not an abdication of what truly made The Hold Steady great in the first place, instead, it’s an embarrassment of riches. (I have quietly referred to this wishful thinking-turned-reality lineup as SuperSteady for many years, and oh my word, they did they NOT disappoint.) What these shows, these three reissues have told us is that The Hold Steady, in whatever form they are in these days and going forward are still capital-F, capital-D Fucking Dangerous.

Yes, they’re my favorite band, of course I’m going to say that. I defy anyone who has caught any of this year’s seven gigs to tell me different. They don’t really need to make any new music right now. The canon has been established. How mindblowing is it to hear Franz add genius flourishes to songs that he didn’t play on? Harmonica on “Sweet Part of the City”? Brilliant keys on “Spinners” (still in the running for one of THS’s best-ever songs) and the mind melt of bringing himself to the dance on “The Weekenders” which is surviving the years as one of the band’s weirdest compositions from a not-too happy era.

I have a stake in it, I know. November 30’s encore of “The Ballad of the Midnight Hauler,” a song I’ve gently requested from Craig for at least seven years before finally giving up, was a major surprise, something I’d never thought I’d hear again, much less get a shout out for my birthday. While I’ve been recognized before (it never stops feeling amazing), nothing tops that. I can’t stop smiling about it. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The thing that keeps flashing back to me are the faces. The faces of all of these people I’ve gotten to know over the years, whether in person by chance through the internet but never in person until now and countless others. I’ve watched all these people transform of the years, grow up, get older, turn into better versions of themselves, remember their journeys, remember mine, and remember it all still feels pretty sweet. I hope to never forget that, forget you, and hope that somehow, someway, we’ll all find each other again no matter what becomes of this band. It was a celebration of you guys, us guys and this beautiful, messy thing we all created together. That’s an amazing thing.

Mourning View

morning viewEarlier this week, Morning View by Incubus turned fifteen. While it may not have aged as well as some, it very much played a part in my musical development and remains one of my favorite records. It’s a good one, and one that somehow manages to sound of its time and completely out of it all at once.

October 2001 was a bottomless, scary time. 9/11 had just happened, the country was literally putting the pieces back together. Every news report fixated on the wreckage at Ground Zero. I was a sophomore in high school, cognizant that something massive had taken a few hundred miles from me – but I didn’t know anyone that had been affected, or anyone that I knew that was directly impacted. But you could tell in the air that things were about to change in a big way.

Rock music at that time was probably in one of the worst periods as it ever had been – rap rock was still very much en vogue – and I was still consisting on a steady diet of whatever I heard on the radio and was still months away from hearing about a local Chicago site called Pitchfork Media. Incubus, at the time was not far separated from the pack of the rap rock bands, a shapeless group of Southern California dudebros with loud guitars and a dude who sang with soul but none of the chutzpah. 1999’s Make Yourself was a bonafide hit, containing “Pardon Me” and “Drive” both nice singles, especially the latter, which appealed to the sensitivity and found in 14-year-old boys living in the suburbs. These songs have somehow have survived through the years on alt-rock radio in varying forms, which is kind of amazing, considering so many of their peers have not.

For their follow up, Incubus famously decamped to a house in Malibu on a street called “Morning View Drive”. The resulting album from the sessions is something that feels a little spacier and what is probably best described as “pocket ambience”. (Also, before we go any further, I want to mention this was the first and last record I pre-ordered at Sam Goody at Spring Hill Mall.)

For those weightless moments, there are also the hard-edged rock ones – “Nice to Know You” and “Circles” with punishing guitars, “Wish You Were Here,” one of last decade’s very best alt rock singles, all ‘Bob Marley poster on the walls of my room at my parents house” poetry aside. Songs like “Warning” with a slow-burn churn and “Echo” were soft without being entirely saccharine. “Aqueous Transmission,” with its use of a Chinese instrument called the pipa, was unlike anything any teenage suburban midwesterner had ever heard.

Somehow, in pre-9/11 America, Incubus made a record that soothed what was about to come. Released a month after the attacks, It was angry and sensitive, but nuanced enough for teenagers to find meaning. It was art for people who didn’t really get art, and was a direct route to making new friends and relating through music at school.

Incubus never again made a record as balanced as Morning View. What has come since has always been intriguing (seriously, Light Grenades, people), nor did they ever make something as fluid, either. It’s a record that legitimately feels hazy, capturing the mood of its era, but somehow cutting through the gritted-teeth anxiety of a terrible time. That’s why I remember it.

John K. Samson’s Winter Wheat is Part Postscript, New Beginning

jks_winterwheatI dont claim to know the entire Weakerthans catalog, or really know much about John K. Samson, but I can tell you that the release of “Winter Wheat” is an album that hews closest to a new Weakerthans release as we may ever get. Perhaps that’s why he utilizes the band’s former rhythm section throughout the release.

Samson’s work is kind of a curiosity to an American like myself. Pastoral descriptions of Canada, a place that is easy to generalize as one-note, nice and America-lite, are always fascinating. He’s a songwriter whose turn of phrase strikes the balance of sensitive and strange – opener “Select All Delete” begins with the lyrics “That hashtag wants me dead/but I don’t mind.” Virtute the cat reappears, a reoccuring character from Samson’s Weakerthans songs A warning: that song, “Virtute at Rest,” is a goddamn heartbreaker.

Samson’s lyrical prowess is not done justice through an album review. He’s definitely one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, lesser known to a mass audience, ducking out and re-emerging every few years with songs that have earned the right to be dissected, quoted and shared by those that know his work best. Whether “Winter Wheat” is truly the postscript to the Weakerthans or is the next evolution in the long musical history of John K. Samson remains to be seen. We’ll know eventually. For now, take your time, listen over and over and pass it on. Like all great stories, they’re meant to be shared. “Winter Wheat” is one of them.

Winter Wheat is out today on ANTI-.

The Wild Heart

This video has been making the rounds lately in large part is that it is an uncredited sample found on “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” by Bon Iver from his new album, “22, A Million”.

I can’t stop watching it. While getting prepped for a Rolling Stone photo shoot, Stevie Nicks effortlessly (and gorgeously) performs “Wild Heart” like it is as essential as breathing. It’s a performance that never was supposed to be, somehow surviving so many changes in technology to make it to the internet 30 years later. It’s remarkable that something as tossed off as this has impact now. Watch it. You will more than once.