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.

MUNA Offer More Than Just Making People Move

Listening to the debut album from Los Angeles-based trio MUNA, it would be easy to assume that based on their sunny synth compositions, they’d make propulsive music for the dance floor set. Part of that is true, but it’s apparent that with About U, they have a lot more to offer than just making people move.

The Los Angeles-based group – Katie Gavin (lead vocals / production), Naomi McPherson (production / guitar / synths / vocals) and Josette Maskin (lead guitar / vocals) – formed in 2013 and released a series of EP’s of various evolutions of what they’ve described as “dark pop.” These eventually earned them tours with bands like Of Monsters and Men, a slot at Lollapalooza, and even a TV appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

The band’s early success is apparent from the leadoff track So Special, full of cyclical, moody synths that would not be out of place during cinematic nighttime desert drive. It’s a great table setter – quickly breaking into something brighter, bursting into a chorus about the disappointment of lost love. The band plays with atmospherics in the bridge through manipulating vocals and slick guitars that show their dexterity. Songs like End of Desire and Everything, with their multi-layered vocal approaches, sound like they’ve taken a page out of the HAIM playbook, and it works great. But then there are songs take a decidedly more serious turn. The lead single, Loudspeaker, is a slow burn anthem – the lyrics: what you’ve done to me/well I’ve seen many a friend be silenced/thinking nobody would believe them/well baby you’ve got another thing coming, is a direct reference at the band’s intent of the song to bring awareness of how common it is for women who experience sexual assault. The chorus drives it home – so if I feel real good tonight/ I’m gonna put it high on the loudspeaker/and if I feel like crying, I won’t hide it / I am a loudspeaker. While nothing can truly ease that trauma, “Loudspeaker” is a great respite, even if just for a few minutes.

“I Know a Place”, imagines an actual respite. It starts pretty syrupy with its ooh, yeah background vocals and stratosphere-stretching chorus, but a little context changes that perspective. MUNA’s three members identify as queer, and the song talks of a safe space where everyone will ‘lay down their weapon’ and ‘giving me trust and see what will happen. The band released it in the wake of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub Massacre in June 2016. With that knowledge, it feels more purposeful than a simple pop song.

While songs like “I Know a Place” are about an idea that is utopian, achieving what MUNA describe doesn’t feel completely out of the realm of possibility. About U is an album with plenty of imagination and a fearlessness to talk about things that matter in a way that a wide audience can understand. Their sound is perfect for their message, and if this album is any indication, what’s to come may soon offer MUNA a bigger platform than they ever expected.

This review was written originally for VinylMnky.

On Big Bad Luv, John Moreland Widens His Scope

You don’t find John Moreland. He finds you in the sneakiest of ways. Whether it’s a hat tip from Rachel Maddow or an arresting performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Moreland is weaving his way into the public consciousness with gorgeous tales of faith, heartbreak and loss. It’s almost impossible to listen one of his songs without feeling impacted in some way. So, it’s no surprise that on his latest album, Big Bad Luv, there are those in spades – perhaps with a little bit more optimism this time around.

The fourth solo album from the Tulsa, Oklahoma native represents a shift from his most recent prior records. While records like In The Throes and High on Tulsa Heat represent a kind of inwardness, utilizing accompaniment when necessary, they feel more like solitary experiences – Moreland’s words hit like hammers in his sandpaper croon. Here, that’s still true, but these are the definitely songs of a band. He’s made that clear with luminaries like John Calvin Abney and Lucero’s Rick Steff. This wholeness makes songs like album opener “Sallisaw Blue” shimmy, instead of feeling like being the witness to a confessional. Songs like “Love is Not An Answer” and “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” have an easy, propulsive quality that feel like feel like quiet anthems more than anything.

Despite the more muscular nature of the songs on Big Bad Luv, it’s hard not to think what these would sound like if it were mostly just Moreland. It’s a formula that’s worked so well prior, and with a voice and as distinct as his – it almost feels unnecessary to disrupt. That said, he’s a songwriter who has hit an incredible stride and deserves the victory lap.

The album’s most poignant moment comes on the album closer “Latchkey Kid” – accompanied by nothing other than acoustic guitar and elegiac organ, he sings “Won’t you tell me how the story goes and goes/I’m too lost to tell my temples from toes/But I’ve got too many pages left to turn/To sit and wonder why that book won’t burn” – it’s unclear who he is talking about, but that sort of exhaustion and frustration and heartbreak is relatable. Later, he flips it on its head: “I found a love that shines into my core/I don’t feel the need to prove myself no more/When I look into the mirror now I see/The man I never knew that I could be.” The guitar stops, the organ tracks out. Moreland’s sounds like he’s found some peace on the other side of the road, waiting for the rest of us to join him on his next journey.

Big Bad Luv is out May 5 on 4AD.

Vinyl Moon’s Wild Approach to Monthly Vinyl Subscriptions

Quick heads up: I was provided a complimentary product from Vinyl Moon to review, but all opinions are my own, and no compensation was received.

Vinyl Moon claims to be The Planet’s Only Mixtape Record Monthly. That’s a weird concept – a limited edition record with different mixtapes every month – and every record sleeve is designed by a different visual artist. Each of the seventeen records in the series prior feature different art and vinyl colors to boot. This already separates itself from the pack. Most vinyl subscription services consist are special editions of existing records or often just represses of different colors. Maybe some limited edition artwork, but more or less you know what to expect.

So, when Vinyl Moon’s Volume 18: Intrepid Curves edition arrived in my mailbox, I have to say that I felt their claim was a bit dubious. After opening the packaging I am happy to report I’m very wrong.

In short, Intrepid Curves blew me away. The packaging is curated by French cartoonist Samplerman. Based on collages of vintage American superhero comics, the art blends familiar elements of art that’s existed in your mind for years and repurposes it for this collection. It’s staggering.

The gatefold cover features original art both on the front and back covers, and inside the gatefold image that’s just so cool it’s hard to photograph and do it justice. The full page booklet (seen below) contains no credits – it’s just pages of full 12×12 comics. I’ve spent hours looking at them. You can see some of the detail here with the colored vinyl called “used Silly Putty”. Apt, I think:

Images courtesy Vinyl Moon

It almost feels weird to say that reviewing a vinyl subscription service that the music almost feels secondary. That it isn’t, exactly – the playlist feels seamless, synth pop wonders like “Lauren” by Men I Trust and the sunny buoyancy of “Cigarette Buzz” by Jane’s Party fit really well with this collection. None of the songs here are ones I’ve ever heard, but they almost seem to enhance the experience of just sitting on your floor and listening to your records. My only criticism here is that I wish there was a download card to listen to the songs on the go.

Vinyl Moon of flips the idea of a vinyl subscription service on its head. It calls to attention of music as art – or art as music? Either way, the roads intersect in a really unique way. You WANT to spend time with this collection – there’s so much to look at. Also, each record comes with a mini booklet and artist information and some postcards.

“Used Silly Putty” vinyl.

Vinyl Moon made me feel approach listening to records differently with this release. It’s to slow down, step away from whatever else you’re doing and to immerse yourself and pay attention the nuance. There’s so much here and it feels like you’re getting something special. Hopefully this immersive, major attention to detail experience will move towards whole albums by bands or reissue projects. This is an excellent place to start.

White Reaper’s The World’s Best American Band is Not Just a Clever Title

You’d think that a band that titled their album The World’s Best American Band may be getting ahead of themselves. But not every band is White Reaper. They might have just done it.

The second album from the Louisville, Kentucky natives somehow takes elements of ear-pleasing 70’s hard rock a-la Van Halen and a very coked-up Aerosmith, but imbues a punk immediacy that basically says ‘we can’t fuck with these theatrics if we can’t get out of this jam in 3 minutes or less’ – only two songs pass four minutes – one of those just barely does it.

The album’s best song is “Judy French,” a simple love song full of compressed guitars and keyboards that dance together with vocalist/guitarist Tony Esposito’s wild wail. Just as it sounds like the main riff is about to end, another grows in its place like some sonic hydra before launching into a blistering solo. It is one of 2017’s best songs, no matter what else is released this year.

“Little Silver Cross” slows things down a bit on a bed of synth keys, but the pace picks up quickly edging toward the chorus, as Esposito seems to almost command singing ‘too slow’ – the chorus bursts into something sounding a little euphoric – the message going from ‘too slow’ to ‘you gotta be good to yourself’. It’s a great catch your breath moment on a record with serious power riffage.

Songs like “The Stack” disarm with its glam stomp – the rhythm section on this album is VICIOUS – before it launches into some serious barroom piano shit. Sure, the lyrics indicate this is song about boys and girls in America – just like so many others on this record, but it doesn’t matter. They all just rule.

If I’m being honest, it really doesn’t matter where you start on The World’s Best American Band. Any point is fine, and that is not a usual recommendation. I’ve spent the past few weeks playing it start to finish, finish to start, and even shuffled it for shits and giggles. It’s a rock and roll prism that refracts its light in any direction. Sometimes the most revelatory things you come back to don’t really to teach you anything. Just like Esposito says on “Tell Me” – sometimes you just need to hear about “the mean kids crashing the bars and the good kids torching their cars”. Depth is for the birds.

The World’s Best American Band is out now on Polyvinyl Records.

Khalid’s American Teen is a View to the Future

Plenty of musicians can write about the experience of being a teenager, usually long after the time they were one. It’s one of those few experiences that’s almost certainly better examined in hindsight. Almost. That was the case until the release of American Teen by Khalid.

Born Khalid Robinson, the El Paso, TX, artist recently came to prominence after his track Location was in one of Kylie Jenner’s Snapchats. It’s a bit of good luck for the 19-year old artist who manages to capture the feeling of exactly what it’s like to be a teenager in the 2010’s, but with the self-awareness and maturity that artists twice his age still struggle to possess. The album’s self-titled opening track begins with the sound of an alarm going off, blending into a pastiche of airy 80’s synths. Khalid’s easy croon sings, “So wake me up in the spring / While I’m high off my American Dream / And we don’t always say what we mean / It’s the lie of an American teen”. It’s instantly-relatable moments like these that separate Khalid from the pack of forward-thinking R&B. The slow burn of “Young, Dumb & Broke” – about, yes, being just that, as well as ruminating on not wanting to commit but still having ‘love to give’.

Then there’s “Location”, a blippy slow-burn ballad that has certainly earned the attention it’s getting – here, Khalid humorously states that “I don’t want fall in love off of subtweets, so let’s get personal, I’ve got a lot of spots we can go,” It’s the latest in the line of communication-as-an-obstacle songs, a sort of an update on Hanging On a Telephone for the data plan era. For being his first album, Khalid’s debut is an assured piece of work. Coaster, with its ghostly choruses and mournful vocal – “So I’ll be coasting, roller-coasting / Through my emotion / I will be coasting, roller-coasting / I’m hoping that you’ll come back to me,” illustrates beautifully what it feels like to be young and in love that doesn’t exactly feel balanced. It’s not long after that his optimism in the face of uncertainty on Hopeless, an up-tempo jam where he’ll remain “hopeless, hopelessly romantic”.

On American Teen, Khalid has crafted a debut that negotiates the distance between the ambitiousness of someone with a bright future coupled with the actuality of being young and maybe not having all of the resources just quite yet. Khalid’s desire to ascend to the next level is coming to the surface, but as the phrase he uses says, being “young, dumb and broke” just a little longer might suit him (and the rest of us) until he’s ready.

This review originally posted on Vinylmnky. Check out their great vinyl subscription service and site!