Archive for the Album Category

Isbell returns to form with ‘Southeastern’

Posted in Album, Bent Notes Column, Review with tags , , on March 13, 2014 by Todd

jasonisbellcolorbymichaelwilsonjpg-3cf2d754938b1189 (1)
Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong.
I had all but written off Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist/singer-songwriter who embarked on a solo career in 2007. During the six years he spent with the Truckers, Isbell, barely out of his teens when he joined, proved himself to be one of the most talented musical artists of his generation—a young man possessed of a parched, weary voice who composed songs with the somber intelligence and dark, compressed detail of the finest southern short story writers.
The quality of the songs Isbell recorded with the band, chief among them “Outfit,” “Decoration Day” and “Danko/Manuel,” is simply astonishing, illustrating an elevated gift for raw, blood-soaked lyricism and unflinching self examination far beyond his years.
Isbell’s guitar skills, equal parts Doc Watson and Duane Allman, simply confirmed his place at the forefront of a new vanguard of songwriters that includes the likes of James McMurtry and Justin Townes Earle.
Unfortunately, as he gained acclaim for his craft, Isbell also acquired a reputation as a mean and frequent drunk, a condition that may have had some bearing on the disappointingly uneven quality of the material he recorded prior to his most recent album, “Southeastern,” released during the summer of 2013.
On too many of the albums he’s recorded since leaving the Truckers and going through a very public divorce with that band’s former bassist, Isbell has seemed like a man fighting against the natural current of his own talent, jumping from one genre to the next in hopes of finding a voice free from his former associations with southern folk and rock music.
Having written two of the finest songs of the 21st century, the aforementioned “Outfit,” and “Decoration Day” within his first two weeks of joining the Truckers and then following up those efforts with songs of nearly equal potency for the band, Isbell seemed to struggle with the weight of expectations as a solo act, unable to carry an entire album or commit to a unified vision for his increasingly mediocre music.
With the release of “Southeastern,” however, all of the setbacks, all the compromises and confused detours, have simply fallen away. “Southeastern” has been hailed as Isbell’s “sober album,” the first set of songs he’s composed since putting down the bottle nearly a year ago. The album is also clearly the work of a man revitalized by love, offering hints of Isbell’s relationship with fellow musician and songwriter Amanda Shires. The two were married shortly after the record was completed.
The strength of the songs at the heart of “Southeastern,” most of them starkly acoustic, confirms Isbell’s return to form in every conceivable way. Album opener “Cover Me Up” sets the tone, offering a portrait of a man giving himself over wholly to a new way of life, a new sense of belonging.
“Days when we raged,
We flew off the page,
Such damage was done,
But I made it through
‘Cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone.”

For all the sense of rebirth present in these songs, the album never soft-pedals Isbell’s all too recent troubles. The specter of prescription drugs, illegal substances and alcohol emerge time and again, chilling reminders of the man’s past and the path he chose to veer from.
“I lost a good friend
Christmas time when folks go off the deep end
His woman took the kids and he took Klonopin
Enough to kill a man of twice his size”

(Relatively Easy)”
In “Travelling Alone,” Shires’ violin shimmers and eddies around Isbell’s vocals, which detail a man at his wits end, physically and emotionally.
“So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay,
They said come see me on a better day,
She just danced away.”

Just as importantly, Isbell doesn’t deny the good times to be had on the road, the drunken nights of half remembered insanity after a particularly satisfying show.
“Well I finally got the room clear,
Bleeding from the left ear,
Feeling pretty bad for the maid,
Lost a couple drinks and my dinner in the sink,
Woke up with the bed still made.”

(Super 8)
“Live Oak” could almost serve as a metaphor for Isbell’s fears about giving up his besotted ways. A singularly haunting minor key ballad about a man whose lover is drawn to him not for his settled present but for his murderous past, the song ends with the narrator stalking off alone, wondering if he’s abandoned the part of himself that others found most enticing.

Though it’s received little press attention, the next to last song on the album, “Yvette,” is one I’ve returned to often. The song uses small details and subtle suggestion to reveal a young man who believes a shy girl from his school is a victim of incest.Throughout the song Isbell takes on the voice of a teenager, a child for all practical purposes, faced with a hideous truth and an even more grotesque decision. As he sits outside the girl’s family home, he loads his rifle and watches the father and daughter through an upstairs window.
“I saw him hold you that way,
He won’t hold you that way anymore, Yvette.”

And then there’s “Elephant,” the black hole centerpiece of “Southeastern.” If a more unflinching or moving examination of a dying friend exists in music, I’ve yet to hear it.
“She said, ‘Andy you crack me up,’
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
Sharecroppers eyes and her hair almost all gone.”

The song’s denouement comes in the form of two chilling, yet thrillingly honest lines:
“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,
No one dies with dignity.”

For months, I hesitated to buy or even listen to any tracks from “Southeastern,” fearing yet another disappointing, depressing effort from an artist that once seemed to hold the secrets of classic country and rock songwriting in his very soul.
Having now listened to the album dozens of times since purchasing it two weeks ago, I can only shake my head in wonder at the sheer stubborn determination and devotion to raw talent that led Isbell to this juncture. Although several of the songs are still far too generic for a man of his talents, Isbell has finally shaken off the miasma of booze and self doubt that had all but crippled him creatively. And make no mistake, when Isbell is on, there is simply no one working within this genre of music that can touch him.
For anyone who has dealt with the heartbreak of loss or the hard truth that even positive change comes at a price, “Southeastern” is proof that true gifts are never truly lost and that life, at least the parts worth remembering, is well worth fighting for.


Drive-By Truckers: “Go-Go Boots” review

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , on February 11, 2011 by Todd

“Go-Go Boots” the latest album from Alabama natives Drive-By Truckers, offers none of the trappings associated with modern music: no auto-tuned vocals or synthesized beats, no guest rappers or emo-pleading. But in its very lack of state-of-the-art, juvenile pandering it may just be the perfect album for this time in history: a sometimes joyous, sometimes harrowing trip up side roads where friends and family are waiting, and down blind alleys where desire and rage boil over into murder and madness. The songs offer a morbid yet joyous meditation on the terrible choices humans face when hope dies, all the while keeping a small flame burning for the renewing grace of love.

Opening with  “I Do Believe,” a quick burst of sunshine pop that finds lead singer Patterson Hood conjuring the memory of a deceased relative, summer trips to the beach and soul music on the radio, the album moves quickly into the swamp blues of the title track, a pitch-perfect first chapter in a narrative that runs throughout the album: the murder of a small town pastor’s wife and the extramarital meanderings of her celebrity husband.

“Stained glass windows, Jesus looking down,

Organ playing music to the middle-aged crowd,

Wife’s in the ground, devil’s in his head,

Them go-go boots are underneath his bed.

It’s a small town and the word gets around.”

Narrated in a leering drawl by Hood and brought to life in shades of insinuating slide guitar and funeral drum codes, the song gains depth by focusing on the pastor’s son, a ne’er-do-well teenager who has questions about his mother’s untimely demise.

Based on an off-hand tale told by a Vietnam Vet, “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” drifts along hazily on a soothing bed of piano and muted guitar fills. As is the case with several other songs on this album, the pastoral musical setting is a set-up, a bit of honey to cover up the bitter truth of the lyrics: A troubled ex-Marine, having confiscated an automatic rifle from his even more troubled friend, finds himself eying drivers on a nearby interstate through the rifles scope.

“I’m telling ya’ Ray,

You gotta’ come take this gun back,

Cause the things that I’ve been shooting at,

Are getting all too real.”

The protagonists in theses songs avoid cliché, remaining stubbornly human and sympathetic, and all the more harrowing for it.

That spark of understanding lights up even the darkest corners of this album, like the disgraced former police officer stalking his ex-wife in “Used to be a Cop.” Having survived an abusive father and found “the only thing I was ever good at” upon entering the police academy, the man’s past slowly chokes all the promise from the future he once envisioned, as fits of nerves and uncontrolled anger slowly erode his career and marriage.

The most fully-realized track on the album, this dark heartbeat of a song conjures mid-70’s funk, gut-bucket blues and country-noir to form a wholly unique composite, one that the Truckers would do well to explore in the future.

Coming directly on the heels of “Used to be a Cop,”  “The Fireplace Poker” closes out the saga that began with “Go-Go Boots,” this time focusing on the murder itself, Again, the musical setting is deceptively laid back, even as the lyrics riff on “The Ballad of Lizzie Borden.”

“No one will ever know what she told him, or know what he told her,

Cause the reverend did his wife in,

15 whacks with the fireplace poker.”

While the tales of murder and unstrung psyches make up the heart of this album, they are surrounded with songs that tell a very different, yet interrelated story. Two covers of songs by the late, great soul artist Eddie Hinton, a troubled soul in his own right, give succor to the grief and outrage. “Everybody Needs Love” and “Where’s Eddie?,” the latter sung by bass player Shonna Tucker, give full reign to a side of the Truckers that’s been muted yet always lurking in the corners of their sound: full-blooded, down home Sweet Southern Soul.

Playing the eternally boyish raconteur to Hood’s lumbering straight man, guitarist Mike Cooley contributes three songs that offer various looks at the costs of dislocation, both physical and cultural. “Cartoon Gold” finds the Trucker’s guitarist “sitting in a bar in L.A. after dark with my sunglasses on,” while “Pulaski” follows the all-too predictable path of a young girl determined to leave her rural kin and slough off her small town roots for life in the big city. In lines worthy of the great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Cooley scrawls the sorry epitaph for one more wasted life.

“Dreams they live and die here just like a stray dog,

On a dirt road somewhere in Tennessee.”

Family, entire generations in fact, take over the next to last song, “The Thanksgiving Filter.” A comic meditation on the ones we love and our patience to deal with their foibles, the song closes with what could well be a classic of holiday mirth and malice.

“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays,

Blessed be my family, 300 miles away.”

More so than past efforts, this is a Truckers album that rewards repeated listening. I’ll be the first to admit that I was less than overwhelmed on hearing this disc for the first time. But the richness, the underlying gravity of these songs reveal themselves slowly, like shoots of green breaking through a hard winters frost. Again, anyone looking for the immediate, spit-shined rush of modern pop will be lost, but those who still have an ear for subtlety and raw-boned song-craft will delight in the Truckers gifts for tracing the weird, brutal humor and unashamed beauty of America.

“Go-Go Boots” may not be the album me or a number of other Trucker fans were expecting; it may not even be the album we wanted. But it may just be, in these strange and terribly uncertain times, the album we needed.

Song Reviews: “Play it All Night Long” and “TVA” from Drive-by Truckers album “The Fine Print.”

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by Becky


On their recent album of cover songs, alternate takes and unreleased gems, rock and roll lifers Drive-by Truckers offer a glimpse into the vault of quality tracks that inevitably amass when your band boasts three top notch writers. Among the highlights are two songs which offer very different takes, both musically and thematically, on the art of incisive Southern song craft.
“Play it All Night Long,” the Truckers version of a Warren Zevon concert staple, can be seen as a near spoof of the genre, a systematic tour of the very worst Southern stereotypes – imbecility, incest, alcoholism — inflated to almost comic levels; a sort of musical counterpart to the carefully orchestrated, gothic portraits of Appalachian hill people by the much-reviled photographer Shelby Lee Adams.

Grandpa’ pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Uncle John’s been acting strange
He ain’t been right since Vietnam.

A queasy mix of humor, homage and horror married to a churning, down-cast riff that can hold its own with the work of the godfathers of the very musical style Zevon was taking the piss out of, the Truckers version glefully magnifies these qualities, elevating it into a full-on hard rock stomp musically while lead singer Patterson Hood drags the lyrics through the slow creeping drawl of his unreconstructed vocals, replacing the morally-neutral spectator of the original with a red-eyed, gleeful participant. The way he slurs and drags out the last line of the chorus, “Play it alll nighhhhtt loooong” conveys more menace and half-crazed desperation than any lyrics could hope to. In concert, the Truckers join voices to shout out the songs summation of country life essentials – Sweat, Piss, Jizz, Blood. It’s a cry of defiance as much as anger, all the contradictions of rural southern culture boiling to the surface and carrying the song beyond any notion of parody or high brow condescension.

Sweet Home Alabama
Play that dead man’s song
Turn the speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

That dead man’s song. When it was first recorded in 1980, Ronnie Van Zandt had been in the grave 3 years. The band he fronted, Lynyrd Skynyrd, was in shambles, recovering from both the physical and mental wounds of the 1977 plane crash that also took the lives of guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines, as well as their assistant road manager and the planes two pilots. The band would eventually reform in the mid-80’s, but during the dark years in between, the members plunged into a limbo of drug abuse, drinking and grief-fueled self destruction. The south had lost their finest band; the surviving members had lost years of hard work, their dearest friends and seemingly, their very sanity.
If Zevon considered any of this when he penned the song, it doesn’t show in the lyrics: They’re merciless, sardonic, as cold as winter rain on a grey tin roof.
In the Truckers hands, however, the song becomes something more, both a celebration of long lost heroes and embattled communities, and a condemnation of the willful stupidity and impoverishment that refuses to question the regions heroes, the old attitudes and avenues of existence. By confronting the very flesh and gristle of the boogeyman trapped in the South’s closet, the Truckers have aimed the rear view mirror of history and tradition not only at their fans, but at themselves as well. As tangled as Brer Rabbit’s briar patch, as dark and filled with creaking doors, distorted shadows and drunken laughter as a backwoods funhouse, in the end the song simply rocks too damn hard and weird to ignore.
Jason Isbell was the youngest member of the Truckers when he joined the group just prior to their “Southern Rock Opera” tour, but he quickly established himself as more than a match for Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley, blossoming over three albums into an artist of often staggering emotional nuance, displaying the depth and rare soul of someone well beyond his early-20’s. All of these gifts are on display in “TVA,” Isbell’s tribute to the saving graces of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a Depresion-era, government-funded project that brought jobs and electricity to a large swath of the South through the building of dams along the Tennessee River.
Isbell turns what could easily have been a stale history lesson into a meditation on family and how they’re shaped by the history of the land they call home. The song opens with a son recounting a childhood spent fishing along Wilson Dam with his father, a man whose past is inextricably linked to the river and the Tennessee Valley. Isbell’s rough-hewn, loam-rich voice immediately erases any distance between artist and listener, storyteller and protagonist. The way he evokes the distance that grows between father and son as the one moves into adolescence and the other towards old age, as the fishing trips become fewer and farther between – “When I got a little older I wouldn’t and now daddy can’t.” – is as simply stated and moving as any musical moment could ever aspire to.
The song’s true nature becomes clear towards the end of the first chorus, with an image of near mythic power.

So I thank God for the TVA
Thank God for the TVA
Where me and my daddy would bow to the river and pray
Thank God for the TVA.

As the ancient Egyptians once worshipped and offered sacrifice to the Nile, father and son fall to their knees in the dam’s shadow, before the roiling embodiment of life and prosperity. It’s a scene as fraught with meaning as those found in any Sunday morning hymn; in fact I would argue this song represents that rarest of finds …the secular gospel.
The song moves from the narrator’s childhood to his teenage years, as the dam morphs from a place to fish with his old man to a conveniently secluded make out spot; the young man and his girlfriend drawn to the banks of the river to explore each others bodies and simply soak in the joys of a lazy summer afternoon. Seen through his eyes, even the wildlife seems possessed of some harmonious magic, as raccoons and terrapins dance on the rocks for him and his girl.
Following those nearly whimsical verses, Isbell leads us farther into the past, into the life of the boy’s grandfather and his father before him, a down on his luck sharecropper struggling against hope and nature to provide for his growing family. That opportunity is provided by the federal government, in the form of a job building the very dam beneath which, decades later, his grandson and great grandson would fish, pray and grow into men with families of their own.

Where Roosevelt let us all work for an honest days pay
Thank God…

It’s impossible to hear this song now, in this era of partisanship rife with charges of socialism and far worse, and not feel some measure of nostalgia for a time when the government was actually seen as a force for positive change. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come as a nation and a people, that it’s nearly impossible now to imagine federal initiatives being put into action to lift a region from the blight of near third world levels of poverty, as existed in the Tennessee Valley prior to the TVA act of 1933. There is, of course another side to the story – witness Cooley’s “Uncle Frank” or Elia Kazan’s classic movie “Wild River” – but for a brief time this countries noblest ideals seem to have gained life through bold, decisive action, the likes of which are now simply stories shrouded in the dust of memory.
The mythology of the South is large enough to encompass both Isbell’s and Zevon’s vision: The hardworking family man passing on the history of the land and its people, and the leering drunk cranking up the misunderstood anthem of his fallen hero. Turn them speakers up full blast, but don’t forget the blood and sacrifice that runs like a river behind you. And for God’s sake, don’t forget a prayer for the future.