Hot off the presses: new music! Better said, new music that is worth your time.
As I wrote this, I learned that George Herbert Walker Bush, aka “41”, has died at age 94 – RIP.
Now, back to business.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Live From the Ryman – 13 songs / 58 minutes
Perhaps a little heavier than necessary, this set is still a beautiful showcase of one of America’s greatest songwriters.
If you read my review of their August show in Austin, Texas and didn’t believe me when I said that Jason Isbell and his band are on top of their game right now, give this album a listen and hear for yourself. This guy can write a song that’ll make you cry, think, or rock. One of the best (THE best?) in country/americana today is thoughtful – almost to a fault – and charming as Hell, knowing how to work a crowd, although this album is all about the music with no banter included.
In the legendary Ryman Auditorium (aka home of the Grand Ole Opry) Jason and his 400 Unit show off their magic for an hour on this live album. All of the tracks found on this recording are from Jason’s three most recent albums, and for good reason. These three (Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and The Nashville Sound) are light years above his previous post-Drive By Truckers work, and frankly well ahead of most of his contemporaries. It is truly remarkable that the weakest point of this record is the combination of “Flagship” and “Cumberland Gap”, two songs that many artists would be damned proud of writing. The line “I ain’t cut out for war, unless I know what I’m fighting for; there’s nothin’ here but churches, bars, and grocery stores” from the latter track is pretty good stuff, folks.
I promise not to belabor this review (pinky swear?), as I have already written extensively about Jason when The Nashville Sound was released last year and again this fall when I saw him perform. However, I strongly recommend giving this a listen and will point out a few highlights.
“White Man’s World” finds Jason railing against the state of affairs in America: reflecting on the 2016 election with the line “I’m a white man livin’ in a white man’s world, under our roof is a baby girl; thought the world could be hers someday, but her Mama knew better”; feeling shame for racism of old and its residual impact with the line “I’m a white man lookin’ in a black man’s eyes, wishin’ I’d never been one of the guys; who pretended not to hear another white man’s’ joke, old times ain’t forgotten”; and commenting on our nation’s past with the native population we found upon our arrival with the line “I’m a white man livin’ on a white man’s street, got the bones of the red man under my feet; the highway runs through the burial ground, past the oceans of cotton”. To close out the powerful song, Jason says “I’m a white man livin’ in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’ve took a vacation; I still have faith but I don’t know why, maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”. Yes, this is some serious white guilt for country music, but it is sincere – and if you ask me, it’s pretty damn accurate.
“Elephant” is about as powerful and beautiful as it gets, and is a must-listen tale of a friend who could have been more than a friend had she not been diagnosed and overtaken by cancer. I seriously cannot listen to this without losing my shit, and I am not alone in that feeling I can assure you. “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity; we just try to ignore the elephant somehow, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow”. Fuck cancer. And then fuck it again.
“Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” find Jason in impassioned and sincere songwriter mode, and these are both classics. The one thing that this album could have used is some more uptempo songs, as the only rocker we get is the lighthearted and downright jovial tale of a near-death experience that is “Super 8”, a track that comes with the fantastic line “I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel, just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well”. His typical set includes more songs of this variety, and while his slower songs are truly great, these kind of selections help to balance out the heavy material. All in all, this is a great release the showcases one of the best going today.
Key Tracks: “Elephant”, “White Man’s World”, “Super 8”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/19652SxfYygBsLkqDhRUtw?si=CjldQ5orTGizkXrgIWkyIg
My best of Jason Isbell Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/user/1217400912/playlist/1hcKc3MiXTkXdIookhlJRI?si=kb5aYzpfQeGnaLp84k6gHQ
Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army – 11 songs / 49 minutes
These youngsters from Frankenmuth show yet more potential on their second LP, without fully realizing it yet.
One thing to get straight from the beginning: this shit sounds like a Led Zeppelin tribute band, except that it’s all original material. No matter how much twin brothers Josh (vocals) and Jake (lead guitar) Kiszka may deflect or deny their influence, one only has to listen to one GVF song – any song – and it is rather obvious. While Josh’s voice (more specifically his delivery of it) can be grating, it is very Robert Plant-esque. The riffs and melodies are straight outta Zep-ton as well.
“Age of Man” starts off with a bang, and has that immediate GVF/LZ sound. This one has a little more of a wall-of-sound/anthem feel, but is a good start to the record. “The Cold Wind” starts with some yell/grunting and then finds Josh muttering “Mama, mama” during a bridge; channeling Mr. Plant so hard that I wonder if he has a restraining order against these kids. My favorite part of this band is not Josh’s over the top vocals, but the music – and that shines here as well as on the lead single and sensation “When the Curtain Falls”. Easily the best song they have released thus far, it stands on its own and while it still has that GVF/LZ sound, it comes closest to them doing their own thing.
“You’re the One” is a heartwarming ballad and one of the bright spots on the album, and again shows that this band has potential to be more than what they’ve largely shown so far. “You’re the one I want, you’re the one I need; you’re the one I had, so come on back to me” Josh sings and then later wails desperately to someone he lost along the way.
Their shtick works for them, to be sure, but this band would be well served to have Josh tone down his vocal delivery and stop trying so hard to be LZ2 – but what do I know? Having said that, I still dig this album and find it remarkably fun, albeit in small doses only.
Key Tracks: “When the Curtain Falls”, “The Cold Wind”, “You’re the One”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/7zeCZY6rQRufc8IHGKyXGX?si=3VfD0k6hSQOAohkdEdz-DA
Also released (and not strong enough to recommend):
Buxton – Stay Out Late
This was a disappointment for me, considering how much I enjoy their last album, Half A Native. “Made for Now” is the highlight.
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Mid 90s (Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Short and sweet, this mostly mellow music is interesting but not something I’ll be listening to repeatedly. It is quite a contrast from the NIN EP released earlier this year, that’s for sure.
Disturbed – Evolution
The kings of arena metal are back with more of the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing. David Draiman and crew are masters of their craft, even if I have mostly outgrown it. Standouts for me are the uplifting “Stronger on Your Own” and “A Reason to Fight”.
Soulfly – Ritual
It’s good to know some things never change: It’s been nearly twenty years since I listened to these guys, and this is exactly what I remember. If you are in the mood for some quasi-tribal metal with plenty of cookie monster vocals, you will not be disappointed.