Album Review — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell has clearly established at this point that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Album after album of lyrical excellency has solidified his spot in the history books as an artist who will be remembered by many for years to come. But his last album The Nashville Sound felt like a bit of a “let down” and for him a let down is an album that is a strong 8 to light 9 (while also earning two Grammys). While “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” were standouts and in my opinion some of his best songs ever, there were also well intentioned, but clunky in execution songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope The High Road.” I can’t deny I was worried he would have more songs like this one. And again I have zero issues with message songs like this one. But like many modern day message songs, they often focus too much on the message and not enough on the song being good too. You can have the best messages in the world in your songs, but if the songs aren’t good, nobody is listening and nobody hears the message (which defeats the whole purpose).

The first two singles for Reunions were wrongly misinterpreted by a few as being in this vein. But after hearing “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid,” these songs clearly aren’t clunky like the aforementioned songs on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s previous album. It’s even more clear when hearing them with the rest of the album. They’re actually great and catchy songs with heartfelt messages about lending a helping hand and taking a stand for things you believe in. And there’s no inherent political messages being conveyed (the listener of course is welcome to interpret this to be political if they wish to do so). These songs also feel even more appropriate within these trying times in our country, serving as inspirational anthems.

These singles were definitely a great indication of the sound of this album, which is a very guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock sound that Isbell said was inspired by 80s rock like Dire Straits. While upon first listens it feels like this album lacks the vibrancy of previous albums, it grows more and more upon repeat listens. Particularly the guitar work on this is really given a pedestal and drives the songs, a credit to Isbell, the 400 unit and his now regular producer Dave Cobb. It really shines on “Overseas,” where the guitar work is just simmering with heat and emotion. The song serves as a great reminder that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles with this level of guitar playing.

Speaking of “Overseas,” if there’s one weaker spot on this album, it’s when Isbell evokes allegorical, more abstract lyricism. The aforementioned song, “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” are all great songs. But they’re definitely not immediately accessible and fall in the same vein of my thoughts on Cody Jinks’ “William and Wanda.” This is kind of ironic in comparison to the rest of the album, as it feels like some of Isbell’s most accessible work yet. It can make for a jarring listen until the album really sinks in. It’s a minor nitpick, but a nitpick nonetheless.

“Dreamsicle” is about a child watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and watching the dreams of his youth disappearing. At first I didn’t like Isbell stretching his vocals so much, but I came to appreciate it with more listens (much like with Eric Church’s “Higher Wire”). “Only Children” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed” are two more great love songs from Isbell. While acts like Tennis and Carly Rae Jepsen do such a great job of showing the sunnier sides of love, Isbell nails the darker, more dour moments. “Running with Our Eyes Closed” in particular feels like the after of “If We Were Vampires,” stripping away the romanticism and showing the “worts” of being in a relationship.

The best two songs on this album for me though are without a doubt the final two. While I enjoy the brawnier guitar moments a lot, it’s these starkly honest final tracks that grab me the most. “It Gets Easier” is a raw and confessional song about Isbell coming to grips with where he’s at in his commitment to sobriety. While the fight never ends and never gets easy, Isbell realizes it gets easier with age, despite the fears that he will relapse in the back of his mind. Emotionally, honest-driven lyrics like these are why Isbell is one of the best, as he flawlessly conveys the drive and struggle behind a complex issue.

Isbell shows his softest side with “Letting You Go,” where he as a father comes to the hard realization of one day having to let go of his daughter. It’s such a beautiful look at the relationship of father and daughter, and how the former has to learn how to shed his naturally protective nature and let his daughter live her life without him by her side at all times. The chorus in particular just tugs so hard at the heart strings, with “The roses just know how to grow” line being one of Isbell’s best. It says so much with so much heart and I imagine any fathers listening to this probably melt when hearing it.

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Grade: Solid 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3Up1uKhcPA

Album Review — The Highwomen’s ‘The Highwomen’

The Highwomen are country music’s newest supergroup comprised of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. With the group’s aim to shine a brighter light on women in country music, along with the undeniable amount of talent the group exudes, their self-titled debut is an album that’s been on my radar for a while. The title track opens, which plays on the same template The Highwaymen had used for their self-titled song back in the 80s. On paper this sounds hokey and contrived. But this song is anything but that. It’s fantastic, as it tells the story of various women throughout history and how they suffered untimely fates. I especially love the surprise appearance from Yola, who sings the story of a freedom rider. Hemby sounds great on her verse too. This is how you open an album!

“Redesigning Women” is another amazing song from the group. It’s a song that promotes all types of women and what makes them great. The lyrics are clever, relatable, catchy and meaningful. The harmonizing, especially in the bridge, is that powerful moment that drives the song home. It’s no hyperbole when I say this song is perfect. “Loose Change” has the misfortune of following it, but it’s no slouch either. It’s a great song about a woman feeling used and under-appreciated in a bad relationship. She likens herself as loose change to him and I love the visual this creates, as it perfectly conveys to you the emotions she’s feeling. Again, it’s clever and relatable songwriting from this group.

“Crowded Table” is a down-home country song that’s impossible to listen to without coming away feeling warm and happy. The song is about family and bring everyone together around the table. The harmonies on this song are excellent, showing the chemistry and cohesiveness of these four artists. Kudos to producer Dave Cobb for building the ideal sound around the harmonies too (warm, powerful and not letting the production overpower it). “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a fun singalong about women choosing not to be a mom, at least for today. I enjoy all the vocal performances on the song, but I particularly enjoy Morris’ performance, as this style of song really fits her voice.

“If She Ever Leaves Me” is classic country storytelling with a modern twist. Written and primarily performed by Carlile, it’s about a woman watching a man eye a woman on the dance floor, only for him to be informed that she belongs to her. While she may one day leave her, it certainly won’t be for him, as the punchy hook reminds you. Carlile’s passionate vocal performance on this is stunning, especially as she hits the high notes. It’s without a doubt a highlight on an album full of them. “Old Soul” is another great vocal performance from Morris and I enjoy the soaring, clean sound of the song. But man does it drag for far too long. You could easily cut three minutes from this and it would still get the point of the song across. Less is more in this case, especially with a well-worn topic.

“Don’t Call Me” is a fun ditty about telling a man to piss off. I enjoyed this the first few listens, but it just doesn’t have the same effect with repeated listens, as the lyrics on this song are decidedly less clever than other moments on the album trying for this effect. “My Only Child” is an ode to children who grow up without brothers and sisters. I’m impressed alone for just covering a rarely covered topic, but then the group also covers it with tact and grace. The song does a great job focusing on the love shared between the child, parent and the special bond between them, really forming a connection with the listener, even if you can’t relate to the lyrics.

“Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” is a feel-good singalong about the legends of country music passing on to heaven, which the group imagines to be like a honkytonk. It’s a fun song, especially when the group hits the high notes. “Cocktail and a Song” is a real tear jerker and is Amanda Shires shining moment on the album. Shires wrote the song about her terminally ill father, as the song is from the point of view of a daughter watching her father slowly die. It’s a beautifully tragic song and Shires delivers it with such powerful emotion, as you can feel the crushing ache and pain every second she sings. It’s the best she’s ever written.

The album closes with “Wheels of Laredo,” which is my least favorite track on the record. The reason I don’t like it is the songwriting is so boring and outdated and relies on scenery tropes that are overused in country music. If the themes and images were presented more livelier, I could get into it. And I know for sure I didn’t like this song when I didn’t like the Tanya Tucker version either. On an album full of fresh songwriting, it’s a shame it ends with a song on the other end of the spectrum.

At it’s brightest The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album screams album of the year (and maybe one of the best of the decade). But unfortunately, they can’t quite keep this up for the whole album. It’s still a great album though and definitely worth your time if you’re into country music at all. I hope this is the first of many great albums from The Highwomen, as the world needs to hear more.

Grade: 8/10

Review – Wheeler Walker Jr.’s “Pussy King”

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Every once in a while you get an artist who comes around and completely changes the game. The genre is never the same after their arrival. In 2016 country music got this artist and his name is Wheeler Walker Jr. His debut album Redneck Shit was one of the most memorable albums of the year, landing at #30 on our top albums of 2016 list. It was also one of the raunchiest, most debauchery-filled and most honest albums I’ve heard in recent memory in country music. Thanks to fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson, Dave Cobb produced the debut and of course brought out the best in Wheeler. Now Walker is back with a new single “Pussy King,” the lead from his new upcoming album Ol’ Wheeler set for release on June 2. And as you can see from the title, Wheeler is singing about something he’s quite familiar with from his debut record. The song opens with Wheeler proclaiming, “Wheeler Walker Jr. motherfucker…I’m back.” The instrumentation is decidedly more blues influenced, with the prominent harmonica and rocking guitars. The song also has soulful backing vocals, that gives the song a more powerful sound than any of the songs on his debut record. The song itself is of course about Wheeler having sex with women all over the place in many different ways. There are multiple hilarious lines, including my favorite: “Catholic virgin who thinks anal doesn’t count.” Wheeler’s new single “Pussy King” sees Wheeler stick to this tried and true self, while also elevating his sound. Can’t wait to hear what the album has in-store.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes (although not for the faint of heart and you probably shouldn’t listen to this at work without headphones)

 

Written by Wheeler Walker Jr.

Review – Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”

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Welcome Home. As you longtime readers know, I wasn’t fond of Zac Brown Band’s last album Jekyll + Hyde. While it wasn’t a bad album, it was a disappointment and I let my criticisms of the album be known, most notably the lackluster songwriting and releasing an EDM song to country radio. They were better than this and many other fans expressed the same. The band seemed to get the message, as in late 2016 they let it be known their next album would go back to their roots. Now we get to hear if they walk the walk with their new single “My Old Man.” From the very first listen, it’s quite clear that this group is back where they belong. There’s no other way to put this: the song is gorgeous and features Zac Brown Band at their best. The song is about a man recalling the upbringing by his father and the impact it had on him. He’s now a father of his own and hoping to pass this along to his own son. All the while he’s hoping his father is still looking down on him, hoping he’s as proud of him as a man when he was a child. This is the type of impactful and emotion-packed songwriting I’ve been wanting to hear from them. Brown delivers the same type of vulnerable vocal performance that he delivered with “Grandma’s Garden” on Southern Family, perfectly fitting the song. The harmonies are great and well placed. Then we get to the instrumentation, which is an area Zac Brown Band has always thrived in. But they even take this to a new level, with the delicate acoustic guitar sweeping through the song and excellent fiddle play from Jimmy de Martini is heavily featured that was so lacking on the previous album. Of course credit has to also go to Dave Cobb, who is producing this song and the entirety of their upcoming album Welcome Home (I had a sneaking suspicion after seeing the band switched to Elektra/Warner). “My Old Man” is absolutely fantastic and this makes me pretty excited for what’s in-store for the rest of the album.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES!

 

Written by Zac Brown, Niko Moon & Ben Simonetti

Throwback Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘High Top Mountain’

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I thought it would be poetic and appropriate that my very first throwback review would be of the album that preceded the very first album I’ve ever reviewed on Country Perspective. Yes, the first album I ever reviewed on here was Sturgill Simpson’s classic sophomore release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. So with Sturgill continuing to surge in popularity after his recent performance on Saturday Night Live and steadily gaining new fans with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I figured it would be interesting for those new fans to take a look back where it began for Simpson: his debut solo album High Top Mountain. Released in 2013, Simpson funded it entirely himself and with it his goal in his words were to make the most country album possible. Simpson was relatively unknown, with some fan base gained from his days as the frontman of the group Sunday Valley. In many interviews Simpson said he listened to a lot of old bluegrass records and it certainly shows in High Top Mountain.

The album opens with “Life Aint’ Fair and the World is Mean.” This always a favorite in the live setting, but Simpson no longer plays it live because as he rightly says he’s past this moment now. The song is about his start basically, trying to make it and thanking his family. And of course how life isn’t fair and how mean the world can be as he sets out to make music. I also love the line in this song about how the most outlaw thing he’s ever done was “give a good woman a ring,” sort of a subtle reminder to the outlaw label everyone loves to slap on any indie artist who makes traditional country music. “Railroad of Sin” is an absolute foot-stomper and pure bluegrass at it’s best. There are a few songs I would cite as the standouts on this record and one of them is “Water in a Well.” It’s your classic country heartbreak song, as Simpson explains their love has dried up like water in a well. “Sitting Here Without You” is essentially a companion song to it, as a man realizes his woman has been running around on him and he could have been out looking for someone else. Dave Cobb really nails the production on these two songs and of course is a big part of what makes Simpson sound so great.

Then we get to the fan-favorite, “You Can Have the Crown.” Simpson sings of being King Turd on Shit Mountain and if anyone wants the crown they can have it. The rowdy, steel guitar-laden track really puts you in the place of where Sturgill was just four to five years ago: an independent artist just getting by and praying he can find a record deal to feed his family. Fortunately for him that came, but then he was just making music with no idea what was next. And of course he was also trying to figure what the hell rhymes with bronco. My favorite of High Top Mountain though might be “Hero.” Simpson pays tribute to his father and how much he’s meant to him in his life. You can just feel how much this song means to him. The honesty and genuineness is just so palpable and is really felt by the listener. Another highlight is “Some Days.” It’s amongst some of Sturgill’s most truthful things he has written in his career and really the song that encapsulates how we can all feel on a shitty day.

“Old King Coal” is Sturgill’s look at the coal industries impact on Appalachia. It provided the livelihood for many for years, but now it’s gone and these old coal towns are broke. “The mountains are gone” as Sturgill sings and these jobs are never coming back either. At the same time these jobs are what killed all of his forefathers and he’ll be the first to not die of black lung in his family in generations. The album closes out with two covers. The first is a cover of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “Poor Rambler.” Simpson does the bluegrass king justice and we also get to hear a lot of the great Pig Robbins on piano. The last song of the album is the Steve Fromholz-penned “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” made famous of course by Willie Nelson. It fits Sturgill perfectly, as the song is about having to be crazy to give up making music and most importantly crazy to give up the love of his life.

High Top Mountain was a pretty damn good debut from Sturgill Simpson and greatly setup for the breakthrough on the following album. While I’m sure many of Sturgill’s new fans have went back to listen to Metamodern, I urge them to also make sure they hear High Top Mountain. One thing you’ll find is how distinctively different each of his albums are and how it’s obvious that the eventual fourth album will be different too. Country purists openly hope for another record like this one, but it just won’t happen because that’s just the kind of artist Simpson is, as he doesn’t like to stick to an exact same sound. With High Top Mountain you get Sturgill at his core and that’s pure country music.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Definitely!

Album Highlights: You Can Have the Crown, Hero, Some Days, Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean, Old King Coal, Water in the Well, I’d Have to be Crazy

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None