New Music From Jason Isbell

A great weekend for new music. Wilco give their album “Star Wars” away buckshee,  singles from Keith Richards, Public Image Ltd & Public Enemy. Over the coming days I’m sure that I’ll be returning to all of them. It may be a while before they hit the front of the queue because today (Saturday) this year’s (2015) most eagerly anticipated music came around. “Something More Than Free” is the new LP by Jason Isbell, the follow up to 2013’s “Southeastern”, a record that has given me so much pleasure since its release & continues to do so.

 

 

I won’t presume to tell you everything about the new record, it’s only been in the house for 12 hours for Jah’s sake. “Southeastern”, like all the best things, took its time to reveal its depths & its delights. I wrote about it here, struggled then to pick 3 songs & would possibly select 3 others if I did it all over again (I didn’t pick “Live Oak”. What was I thinking ?). “24 Frames” has been on the Y-tube for 6 weeks, it’s rock for & from the heartland, the most accessible track on the record & pretty, pretty good. Isbell was Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards, his “Cover Me Up” won too. I have a problem with “Americana”, it seems to be no more than a catch-all, a marketing tool. You, & Bill Hicks, know what you should do if you’re in marketing…

 

 

After such an acclaimed LP, one instigated & inspired by some major, positive life changes, getting straight & getting married to Amanda Shires, it was always going to be interesting what came next. Those confessional, vulnerable, raw emotions can become contrived if you go to that well too often. On “Something More Than Free” he’s still writing about goddamn lonely love & life but his blue-collar characters are more than settling, they see a little light. Working with the same producer, Dave Cobb, there are musical similarities to “Southeastern”. At the moment tracks 5, “Children of Children”, 6, “The Life You Chose” & 7, the title song, have more expansive arrangements, not grandiose but substantial, played live they should be a little more raucous, both rockin’ & rollin’. I expect the more restrained offerings to catch my attention later. Man, I’m pleased to hear this record.

 

Jason Isbell’s music covers rock, country, blues, all that stuff. He served an apprenticeship at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, did time with the Drive-By Truckers, learned his trade. As a singer & a songwriter he is at the top of his game, comparable to Springsteen & Steve Earle when they were hitting that same good spot. These are the only 2 songs from the LP I can find on the Interwebs so here’s Jason & Amanda playing “Live Oak, the one that got away last time. On his 2013 visit to the UK he was playing small venues & I’ve just found out he has a gig in Manchester in January 2016. I’ll get on to that the first thing tomorrow.

 

It Would Make A Great Story If I Ever Could Remember It Right. (Jason Isbell)

It has taken some time for me to get round to “Southeastern” by Jason Isbell. The album was released in June 2013 but you have to be careful with some of this new music. It may seem all shiny, toe-tapping & necessary but…anyone want this Alabama Shakes CD because I will never play it again ? Any road up, the music Jason Isbell made with Drive-By Truckers has been in my collection for a while & still gets played. The 3 other LPs since he left the D-B Ts all have good songs on them. There is a focus & a consistency about the 12 songs on “Southeastern” that definitely makes it a keeper. Here’s one of the noisier ones now.

“Flying Over Water” is one of those grand American  rock anthems like you used to hear on the radio. I love that music but it’s a fine line between the sublime (Springsteen, Steely Dan, Tom Petty) & the ridiculous (Cougar Mellencamp, By Jovi, oh & Springsteen). Jason Isbell respects the traditions. He was raised in Alabama with the twin influences of the Pentecostal church & the Grand Ole Opry. His publishing deal was with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, a wonder of the American music world. Like the generation that forged the Shoals legend he knows the song is the thing. His own generation, Isbell is 36, include some great rock music as part of their roots. “Southeastern” is a traditional, classic American rock record, y’know like The Band used to make, like Neil Young sometimes still makes, like the radio used to play. Nowadays this music is packaged as “Americana”, a hook for a niche market which by definition seems to be looking backwards.

There is a strong narrative to accompany this record after Jason finally arrived in re-hab, got clean, got married &, it seems, has been able to get these experiences into his songs in a mature & assured way. There have always been characters in Isbell’s songs. This time around his own experiences are at the centre of the songs. He has been doing this songwriting thing long enough to do it sensitively & properly. Perhaps I’m being a little cold here but a reformed junkie’s story can be wearisome, self-regarding…a bleat. If all you have going for you is an appetite for getting fucked up & once you stop doing that  all you can talk about is something that you used to do then I’m out of here. I have known people who are lovely, interesting & addicted. John Murry’s record “The Graceless Age” may be considered a masterpiece by some but, sorry, all I hear is a whining ex-baghead.

“Southeastern” has a lot of stories about good times & bad times, times that were both. Man, it’s tough to choose just 2 to post here. The LP sits as a piece & my picks, the earworms, change by the week. “Cover Me Up” has just won the 2014 Americana Awards Song of the Year so that may cross your path. “Elephant” is strong stuff, for adults only I guess. “Different Days” is my current squeeze, it reminds me of Little Feat’s “Willing”, a song strong enough to get the wider hearing it deserved. This time around it’s not “weed, whites & wine” but Benzodiazepine, different days indeed.

Jason Isbell wrote some of my favourite songs by the Drive-By Truckers. There’s the title track of “Decoration Day”, 4 songs on “The Dirty South”, only 2 on the follow up. The D-B T’s were getting mighty crowded with 3 very talented songwriters, one of them a little wasted & not married to the bass player any more. “Danko/Manuel”, a tune inspired by & paying respect to, a couple of the great talents who were playing in The Band, is a lovely thing, a true modern American Classic written & performed by a guy who gets it. Those college graduate bands posing as backwoods beardies just don’t get near. “Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold ?”

So that’s a Wow ! The most important thing is that Jason continues to walk the walk & keep himself together. As you can see in the clip, his new wife, the lovely & talented Amanda Shires, seems a damn good reason for a good man to keep on his chosen path. The Americana Awards made him Artist of the Year too. He has a great back catalogue of songs & an outstanding LP. The last time this music came to the UK the gigs were in lovely grimy rock bars like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow & The Garage up in Islington, North London, very small places.

The canon for American rock was written in stone some 20 years ago or longer. Steve Earle had to make a lot of good music before he got there, Ryan Adams almost made it, let’s hope that Wilco did. Jason Isbell is that good & it would be a pity if his music is not more widely heard. “Southeastern” has covered a particular, significant period in his life. Next time around he needs to step away from the that was then but…he doesn’t need telling, the man knows what he’s doing.