JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT, Live At The Ryman (CD/LP/special-edition gold LP)
Jason Isbell has an affinity for crazy people. They wander through his songs, and even inspired his band’s name. The 400 Unit is a mental institution located in his homebase of Florence, Alabama, just outside Muscle Shoals. Isbell says that the 400 Unit used to take the healthiest inmates for a weekly outing, turning them loose downtown with $15 in their pocket to buy a sandwich for lunch. They were instantly recognizable by their behavior, most notably by the strange conversations they would attempt to have with anybody in the vicinity. He felt that behavior, as well as the meal per diem, was a perfect description of his band in their hardscrabble days, piling out of a ratty van in a strange town, suffering from a serious case of road burn, trying to communicate with the locals while looking for a sandwich. Isbell proved long ago that he has no trouble communicating with anybody who stops to listen to his soul-baring, insightful lyrics. His latest release, Live From The Ryman, was recorded last year during the group’s six sold-out nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The 13 tracks first appeared across three albums: 2013’s Southeastern, 2015’s Something More Than Free, and 2017’s The Nashville Sound. Ironically, Isbell and the 400 Unit kick this one off with a man having a conversation with his estranged beloved about an upcoming case of shared mental crisis on “Hope The High Road:” “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown / I myself am on the brink / I used to want to be a real man / I don’t know what that even means.” Isbell has said the song reflects his clear-headedness brought about by fatherhood and his sobriety, encouraging people to do something about their situation instead of just carping about it: “Now I just want you in my arms again / And we can search each others dreams.” The band is one of the best road bands in the business, with Isbell on guitar and vocals, Derry deBorja on keyboards, Chad Gamble on drums, Jimbo Hart playing bass, Amanda Shires on fiddle, and Sadler Vaden on guitar. The band lays out a blistering live version of “Cumberland Gap” that sounds more Springteenish and energized than the Steve Earle-flavored original on The Nashville Sound. There’s been some criticism that Isbell and the band delivered stock studio versions of the tunes on the live set, but even though they stuck close to the earlier templates, there’s an excitement and an exuberance to the performances that make the tunes jump out of the speakers. Reminiscent of John Prine both lyrically and vocally, “Last Of My Kind,” gets an extended treatment, almost doubled in length and sweetened by Shires’ fiddle break in the middle as well as slid on and fingerplucked at length by Isbell and Vaden. The closer, “If We Were Vampires,” from The Nashville Sound, gets a minute longer in the live version, deBorja laying down a Halloweenish backing organ creeping around behind Isbell’s acoustic guitar. But even amid some fuss that these renderings are not far enough from the studio versions, there’s no denying the power of Isbell’s lyrics, no matter what structure they’re hung on or how many times you hear them: “If we were vampires and death was a joke / We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke / And laugh at all the lovers and their plans … I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand / Maybe time running out is a gift.” Isbell’s lyrical gifts go far beyond wish-I’d-said-that moments, plumbing the depths of the heart and soul in a way that makes you wants to sit as close to the creative fire as you can get. But if you couldn’t get there, you don’t have to be left out in the cold. In this case, his heat conductive prowess is so effective that you can feel the warmth from the comfort of home.
CLOUD NOTHINGS, Last Buildings Burning (CD/LP)
On their last album, 2017’s Life Without Sound, Cloud Nothings dialed back the rage and softened their bite. Where the guitars previously would have erupted, they merely preened and sparkled. It was Cloud Nothings’ one album since becoming a bona fide band that never quite achieved liftoff. Life Without Sound fundamentally misunderstood what makes Cloud Nothings such a rare commodity: that tremendous full-throated release their loudest, fastest songs provide. Without that catharsis, they’re just another solid guitar-rock band. That said, Cloud Nothings have always been one of the most adaptive bands in their scene, and on their pressure cooker of a fifth album, Last Building Burning, they rebound with a magnificent course correction. Volume and fury? Sure, they can do that. Still, they meet the demand with almost passive-aggressive relish. In spirit, Last Building Burning marks a return to the self-immolating intensity of their 2012 breakthrough Attack on Memory, yet it’s even more jaded than that record was. On Life Without Sound, Baldi dared to offer something constructive, an earnest commentary on our divided world and the value of looking beyond our self-imposed bubbles, but it didn’t resonate. So here, he takes a more nihilistic approach, retreating back into his head and indulging his ugliest thoughts. On “So Right So Clean,” he cuts down a partner’s ambition with a brusque “I wish I could believe in your dream,” singing as if choking up tufts of barbed wire. “Nothing’s gonna change!” he barks on “Offer an End,” another track fogged by thick coats of murk. As always, Baldi is one of indie rock’s great sloganeers, a lyricist with a gift for mantras that read like they’ve been inked across two fists. “They won’t remember my name/I’ll be alone in my shame!” he repeats on “In Shame,” hammering the hook until his failure sounds like a triumph. And while the album interrupts its fleet pacing for one 11-minute goliath, “Dissolution,” the real showstopper is quickie “Leave Him Now,” where Baldi bluntly implores a friend to leave an abusive relationship before things get worse. “You gotta go right now/Or never at all,” he pleas. If ever a voice were equipped to sell the stakes, it’s his. The track is Cloud Nothings at their best: direct, visceral, vulnerable. It hits in the gut and rings in the head, striking that golden ratio of ferocity and tunefulness that this band does best. It would be a waste for them to mellow out when they still have music like this in them.
WILL OLDHAM, Songs Of Love & Horror (CD/LP)
Songs of Love and Horror is a rare entry in the oeuvre of Will Oldham: a Will Oldham album, with the writer taking a turn as singer. As befits the nature of this project, the songs are sung and played by Will alone, in a setting enjoyed by fans of his music — that of one voice and one guitar, the better to savor the spare changes and starkly-cut lyrics, operating in quiet tension and ultimate collaboration. Will brings to the songs all that he has learned from his stagecrafting fellows over the years, singing new versions that quiver like fresh young things in the air of today. Starting with such classics as “Ohio River Boat Song,” “I See A Darkness,” and “The Way,” the sequence wanders into deeper cuts, and before it is over, Will is singing other kinds of “greatest hits” — Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Strange Affair,” a Bonny contribution to the Refugee benefit album, “Most People,” and a previously unheard writer’s demo from years ago. This microcosmic revisitation touches on the breadth of Oldham’s musical conception — the songs that came before him, the songs that came out of him, but didn’t make it on to the album, the songs that never came out at all. Will Oldham sings some favorites on Songs of Love and Horror — some of yours, some of his, and some other songs too.
JOHANN JOHANNSSON, Mandy (Original Soundtrack) (CD)
Film composers don’t always get to decide what their final score will be, whether it will constitute a career-capping classic or just another paycheck. While Bernard Herrmann finished the mournful saxophone score for Taxi Driver just hours before his death, the last entry in Henry Mancini’s mighty filmography is the best-forgotten Son of Pink Panther. The tragic passing, earlier this year, of the 48-year-old Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who seemed sure to have a long and distinguished career ahead of him, was a blow to both cinematic and experimental music. Fans who followed Jóhannsson’s career from his exquisite debut album, Englabörn, to his Oscar-nominated scores for The Theory of Everything and Sicario—and who agonized over what his aborted score for Blade Runner 2049 might have sounded like—can only wonder what might have come next. To learn that Jóhannsson’s final completed score was for a Nicolas Cage horror movie could give one pause, but Mandy isn’t just any Nicolas Cage horror movie; it’s the second film from Panos Cosmatos, the director responsible for 2010’s hallucinatory Beyond the Black Rainbow. And in Jóhannsson, he had a composer willing to forge ahead to the most extreme sounds possible. “Jóhann went above and beyond, and I suspect to the limits of his sanity, to make the music for this movie,” Cosmatos says in the soundtrack’s liner notes. It’s a visceral thrill to hear Jóhannsson leave the demands of Hollywood orchestral scores behind and move wholly into his element, pushing toward harrowing new sounds. Mandy revels in black metal, menacing ambient, doom drone, and piercing orchestrations in the mode of Italian experimental composer Giacinto Scelsi.
GRETA VAN FLEET, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army (CD/LP)
ROSANNE CASH, She Remembers Everything (11/2)
DEAD CAN DANCE, Dionysus (11/2)
MARIANNE FAITHFULL, Negative Capability (11/2)
JD MCPHERSON, Socks (11/2)
SNARKY PUPPY, We Like It Here (11/2)
And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!
KURT VILE, Bottle It In (CD/LP)
Playing big theatres and releasing an average of an album a year for eight years suggests steely professionalism, but Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile still thankfully sounds like a guy on a skateboard who tries to sell you a 10-bag after asking you for directions. His distinctive drawl suggests a somewhat fugged mind, something that the lyrics back up: on Bassackwards, he’s doing a radio show under the influence of something or other, saying of his co-host “I appreciate him to the utmost degree” with a stoner’s ironic grandeur. On Hysteria, he “took a drink of a dream smoothie / and all of a sudden I’m feeling very loopy”. But if he’s high, he’s surfing a crystalline state of amused, outward-facing insight, rather than crashing into catatonic self-regard (even if, on Mutinies, he bashfully admits to popping pills to shut up the voices in his head). There’s a sturdy quality to the neat, cute repetitions in his guitar backings, the bamboo that the bindweed of his voice trails around, and while the drums still tread the same happy trudge, he adds some well-chosen new flavours. There’s mellifluous crooning on Rollin With the Flow, country-soul backing vocals from Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa on the beautiful One Trick Ponies, a rather menacing electronic murk behind Check Baby, a bit of deep clarinet on the title track; Cold Was the Wind puts the bong in bongos. Best of all is his decision to let four songs wander up to, and sometimes over, the 10-minute mark – this amplifies the bean-baggy vibe, and lets Vile’s idling poetry really find its slacker voice. It also allows room, on Skinny Mini, for two great guitar solos, where jazzy improvisation turns into big fuzz chords, like a traditional solo deconstructed into separate notes. Lesser musicians would make these songs as boring as a drugs story you aren’t involved in, but Vile ultimately has such an instinctive facility for melodic logic that behind the shaggy locks and purple haze, there’s a clear-headed, big-hearted songwriter at work.
THE BOTTLE ROCKETS, Bit Logic (CD/LP)
As the world is running down, the Bottle Rockets offer a no-nonsense view of their surroundings through Brian Henneman’s sharp songwriting and some rocking country guitar playing by John Horton. “Bit Logic” is the Missouri band’s 13th album since their 1993 self-titled debut — which had backing vocals from Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar — released when the Bottle Rockets were in the midst of the alt-country/Americana explosion. To say little has changed since then would be an exaggeration because their lineup is different — with the current one intact for well over a decade — and might create an impression of stagnation. Au contraire. Henneman’s keen eye for the complications in simple lives only gets sharper and Horton’s guitar is ever more thrilling as is the rhythm section of founding member Mark Oatmann (drums) and “new kid” Keith Voegele, on bass since 2005. “Bad Time to Be an Outlaw” has funky guitars parts coming at you from both speakers, like a roots-rock “Marquee Moon.” It adds itself to the long list of songs lamenting the glitz and marketing ploys of the Nashville scene. “My music’s good but my income sucks,” Henneman sings, a realistic grievance. “Carrie Underwood don’t make country sound/But she can afford it when shit breaks down,” he intones later in the song. “Human Perfection” finds beauty in immediate surroundings, while “Knotty Pine” is a tribute to a songwriting room (”a psychiatrist-treehouse composite”). “Highway 70 Blues” paints the frustration of an Interstate traffic jam and “Lo-Fi” remarks how technological advances sometimes diminish the fidelity of music listening. “Silver Ring” ends the album on a tender note, as Henneman, whose voice combines Dave Edmunds, Levon Helm and John Prine, bears witness to a most crucial relationship, the one with your true love. You’ll have to find your own solutions, but on “Bit Logic” the Bottle Rockets offer some clues.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS, Look Now (CD/LP)
“History repeats the old conceits,” Elvis Costello sang thirty-six years ago on Imperial Bedroom, his finest hour of versatile pop mastery. But even back then, he was rarely interested in repeating himself – going from the angry, young almost-punk of 1978’s This Year’s Model to the literate, political New Wave of 1979’s Armed Forces to his “soul record” Get Happy! to the barbed pop of Trust and the country tribute Almost Blue. Or, more recently, following up 2010’s National Ransom (rock and country about the Great Recession), with 2013’s Wise Up Ghost, a successful album of trenchant funk with the Roots. Yet, even if he’s never really returned to a signature sound, he’s also never shied away from the golden-age LPs that made his legacy, packing his live sets with killer versions of Seventies and early Eighties favorites backed by the Imposters, a band that includes keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, who’ve been playing with him throughout his entire career. Costello’s his first new album in five years finds him squaring his restless artistic impulses with his storied past. He says it’s an attempt to connect Imperial Bedroom, where he essentially combined McCartney-esque compositional brilliance with Lennon-esque lyrical bite, and 1998’s Painted from Memory, on which he collaborated with iconic pop songwriter Burt Bacharach. Costello was in his late twenties when Imperial Bedroom was released, and the songs showed it, focusing on people making their first fumbling negotiations toward and struggles within long-term relationships. The biggest song off his previous LP, 1981’s Trust, had been “Clubland,” a searing take on going out. Imperial Bedroom had highpoints like “The Long Honeymoon” on which he sang “there’s no money back guarantee on future happiness,” the grinding sound of youngish people moving into oldish realities. That dead-end sense haunts the people he sings about on much of Look Now; they’re further down the road of life yet just as troubled because, as always, a satisfied person in an Elvis Costello feels like someone who got off at the wrong bus stop. “It was something I just couldn’t understand until I slipped my finger into the band,” observes the narrator on “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” a punchy soul-kissed tune in which a man pleas for the simple pleasure of understanding his lover’s desires. ” I don’t know if I’m deep down right inside her heart or outside her door.” The album opener “Under Lime,” decks out an elegant melody with Sgt. Peppers-like horn flourishes, while Costello spins a short story about an aging singer and his creepy yet emotionally multi-faceted encounter with a young woman who works as a production assistant on a TV show he’s been booked to perform on: “Whatever you think, don’t let him drink,” she is warned. It’s classic Costello, breathlessly jammed with images and wordplay but still effortlessly tuneful, and also timely, tinged with post #metoo resonance. The standout “Burnt Sugar Is so Bitter,” which Costello co-wrote with Carole king, is about a woman coming to terms with life after her husband has left her, packing a novel into three minutes that brings to mind Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy. Bacharach arranges and plays piano on two songs, “Don’t Look Now” and “Photographs Can Lie,” stately, somber ballads about aging and loss. What sets these songs apart from many of the other Costello LPs that have come out since the Nineties is that they don’t seem like mere genre experiments – moments like “Unwanted Number” and “Dishonor the Stars” are seasoned, if also somewhat studied, takes on the kind of wry, well-observed pop classicism that’s been the hallmark of his genius. There are moments here where you wish the melodies were more indelible and times where the classiness of the musicality gets in the way of the urgency of the songwriting. But on the whole he’s hit his mark, updating the emotional and musical possibilities behind some of the most beloved music of his great career.
JOHN HIATT, The Eclipse Sessions (CD/LP)
This is John Hiatt’s first album in four years and 23rd overall, enlisting producer and stellar keyboardist Kevin McKendree who has done excellent work for Delbert McClinton and Tinsley Ellis to name just a couple. This marks a departure from Hiatt’s association with Doug Lancio as guitarist and/or producer for his previous three albums. For The Eclipse Sessions Hiatt fronts either a trio or a quarter depending on whether McKendree ‘s 17-year-old son, guitar virtuoso Yates McKendree, is present with Hiatt’s long-time drummer Kenneth Blevins as well as bassist Patrick O’Hearn. When Yates does play, he impresses with his sharp soloing and knack for just the right fill whether electric or acoustic slide. Check the latter on the “The Odds of Loving You.” On top of that, Yates engineered the album. Now 66, Hiatt took time off to contemplate his next step and spend more time with his family (which includes emerging artist Lilly Hiatt). It’s not clear what inspired him to get back into the studio for this raw, stripped-down, blues at the core session but it doesn’t matter. He feels that this is one of three best albums he’s made. He cites 1987’s Bring the Family, done with an all-star combo led by Ry Cooder, and 2000’s largely solo acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters that earned a Grammy nomination as the other two in this trilogy. He says, “The three albums are very connected in my mind. They all have a vibe to them that was unexpected. I didn’t know where I was going when I started out on any of them. And each one wound up being a pleasant surprise.” The title takes its name from the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, when three of the songs were recorded. He characterizes the momentary darkness in Nashville that day as rather magical and symbolic of a kind of harmonic convergence. That togetherness comes through in these loosely structured, raw, unadorned songs where the weathered quality of Hiatt’s voice seems to carry even more emotion than we’ve heard from him. And yes, there are the obvious nods to aging and mortality as gleaned in titles like “Over the Hill” and “Outrunning My Soul” or, for example this passage from “Hide Your Tears”- “I don’t spend too many days/Thinking about the reckless ways/A man tries to outrun his death/Or a broken heart runs out of breath.” In fact, during his hiatus, Hiatt composed the last track “Robber’s Highway” that in its own inexplicable way may have served as the inspiration to record again. He was thinking that even though it was once easy to write songs, maybe the spark was gone (“I had words, chords, and strings/now I don’t have any of these things”) only to find his muse again with this set of gems. The album begins with the relatively carefree “Cry to Me,’ followed by the classic melodic Hiatt sound in “All the Way to the River” before becoming very stark by the fifth track, “Nothing in My Heart.” Preceding that tune is the lost love lamentation “Aces Up Your Sleeve” and the rugged, rocking “Poor Imitation of God.” We are in a different time now than when Hiatt had those classic songs like “Looks Like Rain,” Memphis in the Meantime” and “Slow Turning” among several others. As good as some of these songs are, they may never reach that kind of lofty status. Just the same, Hiatt still has that knack of killer lines. “Over the Hill’ has “I’m long in the tooth/What can I say/I take huge bites out of life” “Robber’s Highway’ has “Can’t feel the fingers of one hand/last night felt like a three-night stand.” Listen to Hiatt’s road-weary voice, his sturdy guitar, and the stripped-down accompaniment; it seems he’s got plenty left. This is as expressive as he’s ever sounded.
BUTCHER BROWN, Camden Sessions (CD/LP)
Coming close on the heels of their earnest tribute to Afrobeat great Fela Kuti, Virginia’s funk-jazz masters Butcher Brown goes back to doing its usual analog, bell bottoms thing with Camden Session. At least, if the advance title track is any indication of the rest of the album. “Camden Session” is a slow-going, bud-burning quiet storm led by Marcus Tenney’s sax that picks up the pace only a little in the chorus. Listen behind him you’ll find DJ Harrison’s electric piano, Andrew Randazzo’s bass, Morgan Burrs’ guitar and Corey Fonville’s drums entwine to make a mushy groove, and Burrs steps out front for a lengthy but chops-filled jazz guitar showcase. Echoes of Grover Washington, the Headhunters and Roy Ayers can be heard without outright aping them; Butcher Brown distills their influences into a classic sound all their own.
YOUNG THE GIANT, Mirror Master (CD
TOM MORELLO, Atlas Underground (CD/LP)
COLTER WALL, Songs Of The Plains (CD/LP)