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 — Caitlyn Smith’s ‘Supernova’

I gave high praise to Caitlyn Smith’s last album Starfire. Hence why I had such high hopes for the follow-up and put it as an album to watch out for in my inaugural Spinning All The Records feature. Unfortunately this album does not live up to the hopes I had for it. It would be hard to call this album anything other a disappointment from my eyes and that’s hard to say considering the immense talent of Caitlyn Smith. But that’s just it: Smith has an amazing voice and even better songwriting skills. And it results in Supernova. She’s just capable of so much more.

The album begins well enough with “Long Time Coming.” It’s a dramatic song about overcoming darkness to reach the light. Smith sings her ass off and delivers a belting performance that impresses. The production has an immediate gravitas about it and grips the listener. While the production works really well in in this song and other moments on the album, this extra emphasis on the production is the ultimate detriment of the album. “Damn You For Breaking My Heart” is another highlight on the album, a cutting track about having a hard time getting over a breakup. Smith adds so many nice little details to give the story texture, such as trying to hook up with a stranger and then feeling the instant guilt because she can’t get over her ex.

“Put Me Back Together” feels like a mainstream play, but it’s an enjoyable enough song, as I find it easy to sing-a-long with. Smith delivers a fun vocal performance. I think this song would be easier to enjoy if the rest of the album was better though. “All Over Again” is another song that contemplates lost love and the what ifs of the relationship. It’s just fine. Neither good nor bad, as nothing about the production nor the vocal performance stands out. It feels like playlist filler and this certainly isn’t the last instance of this on the album. “I Don’t Want to Love You Anymore” is great with it’s stripped down, airy production that allows Smith’s voice to carry the story of the song. Despite this being another song about not wanting to love someone anymore, it’s Smith’s vocal performance that really sells the emotions of the song and makes it connectable.

The album’s title track centers around the concept of time, how things can change so fast and trying to enjoy the moment. I really enjoy the songwriting and Smith’s eloquent, yet nuanced approach to time. But man do I find the sound of the clock hands in the background to be annoying and distracting. I get the inclusion of it, but as soon as I hear this the first time it bugs me every time I hear it the rest of the song. It’s just not necessary and it takes away from what should be a great song. To make matters worse this leads right into the playlist filler portion of Supernova. “I Can’t” sounds like a generic B-cut from a (insert pop star from the 2010s) album. “Rare Bird” feels like it drags on and on, as Smith has nothing interesting to say in this love song. “Midnight in New York City” has a cool aesthetic, but the lyrics are completely forgettable.

The monotony gets broken up on “Fly Away,” which is a fun love song. It’s catchy and the bounciness of the production gives it a lightness and carefree feel that fits the lyrics well. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this feels like a lesser version of “Contact High.” I really enjoy “Feel That Way” at first. It’s soulful, swelling with emotion and utilizes Smith’s vocals perfectly. But it goes too long, as at about the three minute mark Smith’s repetition of the hook makes it a frustrating listen. It’s very similar to how in hip-hop when an artist repeats the hook one too many times, crossing from fun and catchy into terrible ear worm territory. The album concludes with “Lonely Together,” an admirable attempt at a heartfelt love song. The soft piano play sets the mood for this type of song exactly the way you would want it. But just like so many other songs on the album, the lyrics don’t stand out enough for me.

The tale of the tape for Supernova is quite simple: this album focuses too much on flash and not enough on substance. Smith seemingly forgets about her greatest strength on this album and that’s her songwriting. It soared and impressed on Starfire. On this album the songwriting is so lifeless and it feels like so many themes are used multiple times and recycled. There are some bright spots on this album, but they’re dominated by what I would describe as run-of-the-mill pop rock moments for the most part. I never thought I would levy this kind of criticism toward a Caitlyn Smith album, but the songwriting just isn’t good enough. Supernova is ultimately just an okay album.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — John Moreland’s ‘LP5’

You would be hard-pressed to find many songwriters in music today better than John Moreland. His albums over the last decade contain some of the rawest and realest lyrics you’ll hear and his new album LP5 is no different. “Harder Dreams” opens the album, serving as a commentary on modern media, ads and the difficulty of realizing individuality in a world where everybody wants you to be something else. Right away you get to hear the new production approach Moreland and his producer Matt Pence take with this album, incorporating airy synths and drum machines. Just like Moreland’s last album Big Bad Luv, I love the different approach he takes with the production. And rest assured this isn’t the first time on this album I come away impressed by the instrumentation.

“A Thought is Just a Passing Train” has a catchy and bouncy feel thanks to some well-deployed drum loops throughout. The song though reflects on how dark thoughts can pass through your mind, but Moreland ultimately telling the listener to let their shame of this darkness go and to be easier on oneself. I enjoy the vocal effects used by Moreland too, as it gives the song a more ominous and serious tone. “East October” is another song focused on darkness, this time on what appears to be a fallout of a relationship and leaving the man questioning how he can continue on alone. Atmospheric guitars, drum loops and melodic pianos blend together to create a lush, sobering, mellow sound that set the perfect background to the lyrics.

“I’m Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is about a man recognizing the lies each person in the relationship is telling themselves. He then comes to the conclusion that he just wants to “move her” and seeing things more clearly than what he has been seeing. It’s a moving and honest song about…well honesty. But what makes this song so good is how Moreland’s lyrics dance around kind of vaguely throughout and at the end they all add up, leaving me as the listener with a sort of “a ha” moment of realizing what this song is all about. A lot of songwriters who use abstract lyrics fail to make them work because most listeners aren’t able to derive the message, but Moreland excellently deploys subtlety to tell this song’s story.

“Two Stars” is a peaceful and easy-feeling instrumental that shows another side to Moreland I’m happy to see. So many songwriters get hung up in the lyrics and don’t pay attention to the production, but Moreland is clearly not one of these songwriters. “Terrestrial” explores each sides of a relationship, the joyful beginnings and the sorrowful end. This might be my favorite on the album, as the lyrics are beautifully descriptive of each side of the relationship coin and the production is rich and textured. The mix of instrumentation in the bridge, largely driven by delicate plinking of the piano, gives me chills with it’s serene sound. My only complaint is I wish it was longer. Well done to Moreland and Pence.

Moreland once again does a great job of using abstract lyrics to tell a story on “In Times Between.” This one is about the crushing and lingering heartbreak after breaking up. The last lines in particular are so devastating, yet just drive the point of the song home so well: “But lately I’ve been feelin’ like I’ll never sleep again/I sit up in a satellite and watch the cold world spin/But damn it all to hell, but don’t it mean a thing?/The love we knew so well was barely hangin’ on a string.” After that dark note, Moreland lightens things up with “When My Fever Breaks.” It’s a heartwarming love song, a side I’m glad that Moreland opened up thanks to his newfound marriage on his last album Big Bad Luv. While it may not quite punch the gut likes his dark songs for many, I think he can write the love songs just as well too.

“I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” once again sees Moreland and Pence find a good balance of drum loops and synths to create an interesting and vibrant sound. It’s another love song that features solid songwriting, but doesn’t quite stick as well emotionally for me as “When My Fever Breaks.” Moreland delivers another enjoyable instrumental with “For Ichiro,” which I thought would be about the legendary outfielder. But Moreland said it was basically just a random shoutout. Damn. Still a funny little story behind the song though. The album closes with “Let Me Be Understood,” which features some well-placed, warm harmonica licks throughout. The song itself is about being accepted and understood for who you are, not who you once were. It’s a nice choice to end that album, as Moreland clearly seems to be drawing from his experiences of growth and change, reflecting on the man he once was and the man he is now.

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Charlie Worsham’s “The Beginning of Things”

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Charlie Worsham is a name that more people should know in country music. His debut album, Rubberband, is an excellent singer-songwriter album with an eclectic sound, rich, heartfelt stories, and Worsham’s smooth, soft vocals. While he hasn’t seen much traction from the album, Charlie Worsham’s career is still young, as he’s set to release his second album this spring. To begin promotion for the album, titled Beginning of Things, Worsham has released the album’s title track for fans to hear. The song centers around William, or Bill, a man who only seems to enjoy the beginning of things. With unfinished home projects and unrealized life dreams, Bill settles down with his childhood love, Sam. Bill and Sam have a daughter, only for him to run out and become an estranged man in the lives of those two women. The song doesn’t resolve Bill’s story in a happy fashion, keeping with the status quo of the story Worsham has presented. In trying to tell a story that pretty much spans a lifetime, writers Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, pack quite a bit into four minutes. The result is a rushed story with details quickly rattled off to get to the next place in timeline. The song itself doesn’t change much with the tempo over the duration, hovering in the mid-tempo range with the same acoustic guitar strum repeated. “The Beginning of Things” is a bold endeavor of a story song that doesn’t quite hit the mark for the intended wordplay or emotional effect. With that said, it’s exciting to hear new music from Charlie Worsham, and his upcoming album is one to look out for.

Grade: 6/10

Recommend? – Worth one listen

Written by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods

Album Review – Mack McKenzie’s ‘A Million Miles’

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Mack McKenzie came across the radar of Country Perspective in 2014. He released debut album One Last, One More late in year and it really impressed me. The Dayton, Ohio area based artist’s vocal style and approach evokes thoughts of Texas-based country artist Jason Eady. A lot of the songs on the album delved into darker matters such as depression and heartbreak, perfectly fitting of his gravel-y toned voice. I think what I enjoyed the most about his debut album was how confident and sure he was in his sound. You could just tell he knows what type of music he wants to make when he goes into a studio and thought behind it. So I was eager to hear how he would follow-up this solid debut with his new sophomore album A Million Miles. One thing that stands out about it immediately is it has a more cohesive theme throughout it. But it doesn’t necessarily always work on each song.

One of the standouts of this album is definitely “Drunk Over Your.” It’s your classic drink your sorrows away country song. This is the kind of song that fits McKenzie really well and can knock out with ease. The amount of sorrow and darkness in his voice really sets the perfect tone for the song. “Tell Me” sees a man pleading and hoping that his ex is missing him as much as he misses her everyday. He wonders if she wakes up from dreams in the middle of the night and if that she wants him back again. It’s a desperate, clinging hope for something that probably still isn’t there. “I Wonder” is very much along the same lines, but I think “Tell Me” gets this desperate hoping across better.

The desperation comes across great too on “M – 3.” The man just refuses to stop giving a damn about the woman he lost and he’s willing to wait a while for her to come back. This could mean him or her changing, but he refuses to give up on something that he feels so strongly about. It’s a really strong song and shows off McKenzie’s ultimate strength: expressing pain and heartbreak in his words and vocals. This theme is kind of reversed on “Where Do You Get Off.” Here the man calls bullshit on his ex saying she still loves him. But then realizes he still loves her too. In other words things are pretty complicated between the two. Neither can really come out and say what they want.

The biggest problem I seem to find with this album is that I find some of the songs over stay their welcome. That’s most exemplified on “Reasons.” It’s a perfectly fine song about a couple giving up on love while still together. But there’s no reason why it should be nearly eight minutes in length. If you’re going to make a song this long, it better be justified. It reminds me of what one of my old English teachers used to tell me: if you can say something in fewer words than what you’ve written, you need to do it. Otherwise you’re just filling space. McKenzie tackles romance and passion in “Give It To Me.” And as much as I want to like it, I just don’t. It comes off too schmaltzy for my taste. It’s not bad, but I just don’t think it fits him and his style. He’s at his best when he’s singing about grittier themes and this just seems a little too polished for him.

For the most part I think a majority of the songs on A Million Miles work well and I can see the idea McKenzie is going for with the whole album. But unfortunately he just doesn’t fully execute it to its full potential. The album kind of gets off to a slow start with its two opening songs, which I find are too broad and similar. Not to mention it doesn’t really hook you into the album like opening songs should do. It wasn’t until the third song that I really started to get into the album. The middle part of this album is where it shines brightest and found myself enjoying the most. McKenzie undoubtedly likes to dig deep with his songwriting, but I think he digs too deep on this album at times to the point where you lose the listener (I had a similar criticism with Jack Ingram’s latest album). What this album also lacked was taking risks and doing more with the sound. Despite my criticisms though, I still find A Million Miles to be a good album with some nice moments that make it worth checking out.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – Yes, if you like artists such as Jason Eady, Ryan Bingham and Corb Lund

Album Highlights: Drunk Over You, M – 3, Tell Me, Where Do You Get Off

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: A Million Miles, Anywhere But Here

Also the album artwork is fantastic! Kudos to the artist who made it.


You can preview and purchase Mack McKenzie’s A Million Miles at Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.