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 – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings Bring Together Best Americana Male Artists on ‘Kings and Kings’

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What began as a tribute to Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have spent the past 20 years growing into one of Canada’s best roots music bands. Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, all with their own solo musical careers, have together developed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings into more than just a one-off tribute group. In 2011, the group collaborated with many of Americana and country’s finest female artists like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Pam Tillis in Kings and Queens. Now five and a half years later, the group returns with Kings and Kings, a collaboration album with country and Americana’s best male singers, including Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell, Eric Church and many others.

Kings and Kings takes the best of each member and guest, which makes for an eclectic sound throughout. Written by all three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and joined by the great Rodney Crowell, “Live by the Song” details the life of the band on the road and playing music. Fearing and Crowell split the vocals, and Crowell’s seasoned voice shines through; a perfect collaboration choice given the song’s content. Not all songs are vocal collaborations, with guest Nick Lowe taking full lead on “Secret of a Long Lasting Love” while the band harmonizes behind him. With Bruce Cockburn, Linden (who has produced many of Cockburn’s albums) not only splits verses with him on the tender “A Woman Gets More Beautiful,” but the pair move between English and French lyrics, adding a layer of romance onto the ballad.

Many guests bring their native band’s flair to their collaborations with the Canadian trio. Buddy Miller, who’s played guitar for many Country and American stalwarts, joins in on the rollicking “Playing By Heart.” Raul Malo brings a taste of The Mavericks’ signature Latin-inspired sound on Fearing’s “High Wire.” Jason Isbell (on “Land of the Living [Hamilton Ontario 2016]”) and Eric Church (on “Bury My Heart”) stay true to each of their respective rock oriented sounds, while the Willie P. Burnett penned “This Lonesome Feeling” sounds like a classic country standard, which is appropriate given the inclusion of Vince Gill on vocals. Keb Mo duets with Fearing on “Long Walk to Freedom”, a track that reminds the listener of a gospel song. The haunting “Bitter and Low” is benefited from a great vocals from Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, while Dallas Green of City and Colour turns in a memorable performance on “Beautiful Scars.” Kings and Kings comes to a close with the men of the show Nashville on “Where the River Rolls.”

Overall, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make the most of their talented guests, playing to each of their respective strengths and sounds, to create an authentic sounding roots album. Kings and Kings is the perfect example of why Americana is such a tough genre to define because a variety of sounds and styles all work under that umbrella. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings provide music fans with an album that epitomizes the genre, with great collaborations from the most respected singers of country and Americana music.

Grade: 9/10

Recommend? – Absolutely!

Album Highlights: Playing By Heart (feat. Buddy Miller), Long Walk to Freedom (feat. Keb Mo), This Lonesome Feeling (feat. Vince Gill), Bury My Heart (feat. Eric Church)

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None

Don’t You Think This Whole Propaganda Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?

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Did you hear the good news? Country music has been saved! The streets of Music Row are now paved in gold, heavenly choirs are singing in unison from the heavens above and country radio is using its powers for good. With the release of Jon Pardi’s new album earlier this year and William Michael Morgan’s debut album Vinyl this week, this seems to be the overwhelming sentiment I’m hearing from all corners of country music. Since Pardi got a #1 song at radio with “Head Over Boots” and Morgan got a #1 at radio with “I Met A Girl,” that means country music is all well and good now. It’s been saved!

Give me a damn break.

First off let me just address the absurd notion of “saving” country music. It’s an idea built on sensationalism and propaganda to appeal to the gullible and rebel hearted. Country music has never needed to be saved and it never will. It’s a marketing tactic that people will use to paint us vs them themes and build up a fictional battle taking place right in your backyard. It’s pandering to a natural human instinct to rebel against “the man” if you will. It’s no different from Toby Keith singing about having sex on the American flag on the back of an F-150 truck while fireworks go off in the background and bald eagles fly overhead. If you look me in the eye right now and told me country music needs saved I would laugh and point to Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan and Margo Price. If you did this same thing in the 90s I would point to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Reba. In the 80s I would point to Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. I think you get my point. Every time in country music history where people think the genre needs “saved” a couple of traditional artists come along and gain popularity to appease the traditionalist masses. It’s a natural cycle that everyone tends to forget about and even yours truly at one point bought into the stupid idea country music needed saving.

This year in particular has really made me open my eyes up to what the real problem has been all along. It made me realize how exactly mainstream country would solve its traditional problem and would do it in the most predictably wrong way. The real problem all along with mainstream country music the past several years has been songwriting. It’s very easy to get hung up on all of these pop sounding songs and their terrible production that doesn’t resemble country in any way. Music Row wisely saw this, so you’ve seen a lot of acts this year go back to a more neutral/pop country sound. Just listen to Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell’s new albums. Zac Brown Band has just promised they’re going back to their roots on their next album. They’re all adjusting to a more country sound to easily appease a lot of people, all while they’re lyrics have not/will not change. Jekyll + Hyde pissed me off more with its lazy songwriting than its two EDM songs. That did more harm to the album than Brown’s egotistical attempts at making EDM music.

But this sound adjustment goes much deeper and clever than this. Music Row knows they can’t fool everyone with these slight pivots and the rest will have to be won over with more elaborate maneuvering. The rest is traditional country fans and what better way to win them over than with pedal steel guitar and a fiddle. Enter Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Aaron Lewis. Pardi and Morgan both don cowboy hats and give numerous interviews talking about how proud they are to be country. Lewis’ leading song when joining Dot Records was about how things just aren’t country nowadays and he’s here to bring it back. All feature generous amounts of steel guitar and fiddle in their music. It all helps these labels frame and paint the exact narrative they want to spoon feed the public.

Now I’m painting a picture here insinuating that these artists aren’t genuine in their intentions. In the case of Morgan and Pardi, I don’t think they’re being disingenuous. I think they’re being quite sincere in their efforts of releasing traditional country music. I think Lewis on the other hand is a sleazy con man using traditional country as a vehicle to revive his career from irrelevancy because he pretty much admitted to it when he said he talked shit on pop country artists as a means to pander to his crowd at shows. Pardi and Morgan while sincere, make the perfect pawns for their respective labels and for the industry at whole, but they don’t realize it and won’t until years later.

These three artists being championed by country circles is the industry’s way of saying, “Ha! We still put out traditional country. Happy now? We gave you what you wanted.” While it may have given a lot of people what they wanted, it didn’t give the industry what it needs and that’s better, more honest songwriting. Many people and outlets are going to applaud Morgan and Pardi for bringing traditional country “back.” If you enjoy their music, that’s fine and I don’t knock you for it. Enjoy the music you want to enjoy. But there’s two artists in mainstream country this year that have run circles around everyone else and nobody is talking about them like they should: Tim McGraw and Eric Church. These two have been showing the real change that’s needed at radio and that is deeper songwriting. But because they’re not part of some propaganda movement or don’t have overwhelming steel guitar in their music, their accomplishments are glossed over. Church in particular has been doing more for country music with his songs and attitude than he’s ever done before.

So while Pardi and Morgan’s sound may harken back to Strait and Jackson, their lyrics certainly don’t measure up to the two titans. Both albums suffered from sub par and bad songwriting (yes, I’ll freely admit I overrated the Pardi album and it did not deserve the grade I gave it). But thanks to bringing back a sound many people craved, this was overlooked by many and including yours truly at first. While this traditional revival may sound like the real deal, its substance is still as fake as the pop country it opposes (Morgan and Pardi’s intentions are real, but their respective labels and the industry certainly aren’t). And the substance that is songwriting is something that cannot be faked no matter how hard Music Row tries. You’re not going to consistently get heart and soul out of the assembly line writers on Music Row. The music of Strait, Jones and Nelson is remembered not only for its great instrumentation, but heartfelt songwriting. A song is not just about how it sounds, but what it says.

The point of this post isn’t to bash Pardi and Morgan, who are great, talented artists with very bright futures ahead of them. I’m coming from a place of honesty and genuine care that you the country music fan is being treated like a fool. The point of this post brings me back to something Jason Isbell once said to a fan on Twitter. Isbell said who needs genre, citing off numerous great acts in different genres. A fan said critics need genres and Isbell replied, “Only the lazy ones.” Another quote I leave you with comes from poet W.H. Auden: “Propaganda is a monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo.” The country music industry is being lazy and wants you to buy this propaganda that’s being pushed and it’s not right. Don’t be manipulated by what’s taking place and think for yourself. Otherwise you’re playing the part of the echo they desire.

 

The Hodgepodge: What Song Defines Country Music to You?

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It made it’s debut a few weeks back and now it’s back again. That right, this is an Ask The Readers Hodgepodge. It’s quite simple: I pose a question to you the readers and in the comments below we will discuss what our answers would be to the question. Sometimes it will be a yes or no question, but most times it’ll be something a little more detailed. This second Ask The Readers Hodgepodge will be quite subjective and should have a variety of answers.

If you had to choose one song, what song defines country music to you?

Guidelines:

  • This song can be from any era at anytime. Just be prepared of course to defend your choice, as someone will always be naturally curious as to why you chose a song.
  • There are no wrong answers, just like the previous Ask the Hodgepodge.
  • And of course feel free to pick songs for other genres if you feel like it, as we’re all music fans first.

 

As far as my answer for this question, the song I would pick that I feel defines country music is Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” There have been many versions of this song, but I would have to pick Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version as my favorite. The reason I would choose this song is it just has everything that a perfect country song should have. It was written by one of music’s greatest songwriters of all-time and performed by two of the best artists in the genre’s history. The song explores death, sadness and grief with some of the best storytelling you’ll ever hear in music. The instrumentation perfectly conveys the melancholy nature expressed by the lyricism in the song. To my ears it’s the perfect country song, defining the rich tapestry of the genre.

I would also highly recommend Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook’s version of the song, which is quite excellent too.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow William Michael Morgan will release his highly anticipated debut album Vinyl.
  • Also tomorrow the legendary John Prine will release his new duets album For Better, or Worse.
  • Aubrie Sellers new album New City Blues will be re-released through Warner Bros. Nashville tomorrow. “Sit Here and Cry” is going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • Strap yourself in for October because it’s going to be a very busy month of releases, starting next Friday when the following albums are released:
    • Shovels & RopeLittle Seeds
    • Mo PitneyBehind This Guitar
    • Brent CobbSolving Problems
    • Matt WoodsHow To Survive 
  • Josh Abbott Band’s new single is “Amnesia” and it’s going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • The Last Bandoleros released a self-titled, six song EP via digital services last week.

Throwback Thursday Song

Gary Stewart – “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” – I feel like a lot of week’s I’m picking too many well-known acts and songs so this week I wanted to find a deeper cut from the past. Stewart is sort of unsung when discussing the best country artists of the 70s, but he shouldn’t because his music is excellent. This is his biggest hit and one of my personal favorites.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial – So this is an album and group I’ve been hearing a lot about from fellow music fans and critics. It’s received widespread praise and finally I got around to checking it out. Well now I know why it’s getting so much praise. I’m not usually a big fan of emo indie rock, but the songwriting on display on this album is impeccable. Turns out Teens of Denial is the 10th studio album and 13th overall album by Car Seat Headrest and they’ve only been a band for six years. That’s insane! Check these guys out.

Tweet of the Week

The picture he’s referring to is John Prine hugging Isbell after he won Americana Song of the Year for “Something More Than Free” at the Americana Awards last week. I would be pretty damn happy to get a hug from a legend too.

A Spot-on Review of Luke Bryan’s New EP

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Luke Bryan released a new EP for his annual farm tour and predictably it’s not good. The only difference between it and his usual studio albums is here he thinks he can pander to farmers and the working people of America because I’m sure they see the millionaire artist who now sings about the clubs and dresses like a Nordstrom model as someone they can relate to (wanking motion). This listener above wasn’t fooled though and rightly calls him out.

The Hodgepodge: If You Were Stranded on an Island & Had to Pick One Country Record…

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After a long holiday weekend here in the United States and the unofficial end of summer, there hasn’t been too much happening in the world of country music. This comes a week after all the hoopla surrounding the 50th CMA Awards and who was in and out in terms of nominations. In addition the much-talked about Sturgill Simpson Facebook rant took place and was a topic that was beaten to death. Needless to say I didn’t feel like rehashing this again. With nothing else to really talk about, I decided to try out something I’ve been wanting to give a shot with The Hodgepodge for a while. That is an Ask The Readers Hodgepodge. It’s quite simple: I pose a question to you the readers and in the comments below we will discuss what our answers would be to the question. Sometimes it will be a yes or no question, but most times it’ll be something a little more detailed like today. The first Ask The Readers Hodgepodge will start with an age-old question involving numerous subjects, but this time country music.

If you were stranded on an island for the rest of your life and you had to pick one country album to bring with you, what would it be?

Some guidelines:

  • It can also be Americana/Folk/Roots Rock because we cover those in addition to country music and I know some only follow the blog for these sub-genres.
  • The album cannot be a greatest hits album, box set, compilation, covers album, live album or soundtrack. Double albums are fair game though, but it must be released at the same time and not separately.
  • You can have the album in any format you please (you get one outlet on the island to plug in your CD player, record player 0r MP3 player, although good luck getting your record not to warp with all of the sunlight)
  • The album you pick doesn’t necessarily have to be what you consider the greatest country album of all-time, although it can be. It’s more your favorite album.
  • There are no wrong answers here! (Except if you pick a Sam Hunt album because I would think being stranded on an island would be a hard enough life without his music)
  • Feel free to throw in your picks for other genres too. This is a topic to have fun with!

 

Now with all of the guidelines out of the way, I will give my answer. I haven’t decided as of this writing what one album I would pick, but rather a list I would highly consider from for my one pick. Those albums would be:

  • Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  • Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (of course my first two on the list are Country Perspective’s album of the year winners)
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller
  • George Strait – Strait From The Heart
  • George Strait – Ocean Front Property 
  • Alan Jackson – Don’t Rock The Jukebox
  • Waylon Jennings – Dreaming My Dreams
  • Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. 

It’s your turn now! Be sure to weigh in below.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Whiskey Myers will be releasing their new album MUD tomorrow. My review of it will also be out soon
  • St. Paul & The Broken Bones will be releasing their sophomore album tomorrow, titled Sea of Noise.
  • Next week Amanda Shires’ new album My Piece of Land will be released.
  • Australian country artist Kasey Chambers just released a new EP Ain’t No Little Girl and her new album Dragonfly will be released on January 20, 2017 (shout out to reader Melanie for giving me a heads up!)
  • It was just announced this week Jim Lauderdale will be releasing a new album titled This Changes Everything on September 30
  • A promising up and coming artist named Paul Cauthen will be releasing his debut solo record My Gospel on October 14. He’s the former frontman of Americana band Sons of Fathers.

Throwback Thursday Song

Willie Nelson – “I’d Have To Be Crazy” – This is one of my all-time favorite Willie Nelson songs and one of my favorite country love songs. For the eagle-eyed, yes Sturgill Simpson covered the very same song on his debut album High Top Mountain. It is also great and does Willie justice.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cry” – Yes, it’s the same artist that sang “Call Me Maybe.” But she’s moved on to much better music! Her last album Emotion was pop music at it’s best and recently she released the B-Sides EP for it. I recommend both if you listen to pop music, but this song in particular is fantastic off the EP. It reminds me of the best of 80s pop and would undoubtedly be a hit in that decade of music (think Heart or Pat Benatar).

Tweet of the Week

Laughing at Blake Shelton’s current terrible single is always appropriate, but especially when it’s struggling on the chart.

Some Thoughts on Kelsea Ballerini’s Album

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I’m not sure why you bought the album either, Danyelle. And it does sound pop, Victoria.