ALBUMS OF THE MONTH:
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
There’s something satisfying about watching a performer mature before your eyes. Though Jason Isbell has long been a Twangville favorite, his latest showcases his tremendous growth as a songwriter and performer. Exhibit A is “Soldiers Get Strange,” the tale of a soldier struggling to adjust to his return home. While the lyrics illustrate Isbell’s ability to deftly explore his characters (“Maybe you’ll re-enlist, it couldn’t be worse than this”), it’s the music that is most impressive. Where some artists would confuse volume and tempo with forcefulness, Isbell uses restraint to amplify the intensity to tremendous effect.
This doesn’t mean that Isbell doesn’t know how to let loose the guitars. Like a junkie needing a fix, I’ve been waiting for an adrenaline-soaked rocker like “Good.” The song breaks down into glorious cacophony at the three minute mark, only to bounce back with renewed urgency for another go at the chorus. Isbell cools it down with “No Choice in the Matter,” a soulful ballad that serves as a reminder that Isbell was raised in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the home of the legendary Stax soul label. Among his finer moments, Isbell confidently delivers what could be an anthem for our times on “However Long”. “I ain’t afraid no more,” he sings, “However long the night the dawn will break again.” I’m expecting this one to be on heavy rotation for quite some time. [See Jeff’s take on Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit here.]
Audio Download: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “Seven Mile Island”
[Source: Thirty Tigers Records]
Midnight at the Movies, by Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle just may be the most authentic country musician in Nashville today. His sophomore album swings from start to finish, built around a classic honky-tonk sound mixed with dashes of pop and folk. “Halfway to Jackson” channels vintage Johnny Cash, fueled by Earle’s impassioned vocals and a sizzling harmonica. “Walk Out” is an old-school bluegrass number that would bring a smile to Flatt & Scruggs faces/Lefty Frizell’s face. True to form, Earle shines on tender folk ballads like “Someday I’ll be Forgiven For This,” an aching tale of a relationship that has run its course. The moving “Mama’s Eyes” is Earle’s touching reflection on his own shortcomings, from his battle with drug addition to the relationship with his musician father. The album’s lone cover is Earle’s take on the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” replacing the song’s signature guitar with mandolin to striking effect.
Audio Download: Justin Townes Earle, “Mama’s Eyes”
[Source: Bloodshot Records]
More, Sam & Ruby (from the Rykodisc release The Here and the Now)
It only takes a few moments for one to realize that Sam & Ruby were destined to make music together. Their voices weave together magically against the tender accompaniment of piano and cello. The mix of dignity and heartbreak is astounding.
Rock and Roll (Will Kill You), The Volunteers (from the self-released Spectrophilia)
Take equal parts garage rock and indie rock and you’ll end up with something like the Volunteers. I saw them perform live recently and was impressed by how the band roughs up their pop melodies with enough raunchiness to electrifying effect. “Rock to Rock” is a great example of the band flexing its garage rock sensibilities to electrifying effect. These guys are ones to watch.
Audio Download: The Volunteers, “Rock and Roll (Will Kill You)”
[Source: The MuseBox]
If You Don’t Care, Smoking Popes (from the Appeal Records release Stay Down)
Chicago’s Smoking Popes celebrate the end of a relationship with power pop splendor. “If you don’t care, I don’t care, we don’t belong together, because we don’t belong anywhere.”
No Direction, Longwave (from the Original Signal Recordings release Secrets are Sinister)
Screeching guitars give way to pounding drums in this energetic rock track from Brooklyn’s Longwave. Those who appreciated the late 1980’s pop sound of Duran Duran and their contemporaries will be smiling from ear to ear after the first listen.
Audio Download: Longwave, “No Direction”
[Source: Original Signal Recordings]
View Mayer’s Playlist for February, Part 1 here.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.