Tag Archives: Jason Isbell

Sound ‘Round: Steve Earle / Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

The ballads of the Outlaw and the Family Man

Steve Earle – So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Warner Bros.)

There’s a cantankerous side to Steve Earle that’s always made me keep my distance even while sympathizing with his politics. Anti-death penalty, yup. Anti-war, amen. But the deal breaker was a stiff outlaw disposition that rendered his music a demonstration in attitude over the savvy songwriting he displayed decades ago. These dozen songs comprise Earle’s most enjoyable and consistent album this century. Go figure it happened when he at long last softened his crusty side. Why now, at 62 years old? Because a life of hard living ain’t worth spit. In fact, the cons are many and listed plainly on the opening title track. Home is nonexistent. Friends are a luxury. Rewards are unfulfilling. Mom is a snitch. Old habits die hard, which is why much of the first half reeks of cigarette smoke, old whiskey and turgid riffs. He’s too old to outrun the lawman, but he’s seasoned enough to pen a convincing ballad. The best song knows “falling is the easy part” when it comes to love. Another knows the toughest man ain’t too tough to cry. And yet another knows the one person in this godforsaken world worth pleasing is Mama. Sounds like Mama Earle did good. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “This Is How It Ends” / “You Broke My Heart” / “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

A decade has passed since Isbell left his drinking buddies in the Drive-By Truckers, and it seems he can finally smile without the help of Jim Beam. Sobriety has its rewards — a clear mind and a clearer perspective, sure. But nothing as eye-opening as fatherhood, a doorway he stepped through two years ago and a role that makes him twice as anxious as the booze ever did. His dread is mostly political. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” puts it mildly. But politics is an endeavor best left to songwriters who recognize the human element behind every protest anthem. His aim is true on “White Man’s World,” wherein he pleads for gender and racial equality, but the song lacks an emotional heft due to Isbell’s lyrical solipsism. His stump speech sputters, but his home-spun tales of comfortable domesticity suit him better. “If We Were Vampires” knows a good love song is a good death song: “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” And the finale finds eternal joy in casual moments these terrible times can’t diminish: singing songs with family on the front porch, counting stars with his wife, and fatherhood. Definitely fatherhood. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Something to Love” / “If We Were Vampires” / “Tupelo”

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Sound ‘Round: Jason Isbell / Freedy Johnston

Men of their words

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (Southeastern)

jason isbell something more than freeIsbell flourished as the third-best member of the Drive-By Truckers because his plainspoken demeanor complimented Mike Cooley’s humor and tempered Patterson Hood’s romanticism. He left the band in 2007 due to an excess of booze and a crumbling marriage, and has spent the bulk of his time since reconciling those demons. Though such subject matter lends itself to the kind of neo-noir Southern folk this Alabama native prefers, his sweet-tea vocal delivery never packed the punch his lyrical wit deserved. This album, however, breathes with a loose, tranquil character not found in the rest of his canon. His wrestling-with-sobriety songs out of the way, Isbell at long last sounds at ease and renewed. “I keep my spirits high / Find happiness by and by / If it takes a lifetime,” goes the opener. From there, it’s onto songs about speed trap towns,  hymns concerning the plight of blue collar America, and a portrait of a single mom who overcomes the Depression to raise a family. Isbell’s matte drawl will always be as colorless as a cotton field, but his verses treat his characters with a tender awe  rarely seen by his big-time Nashville peers. He’s a man of the people, for sure. Still, a few jokes wouldn’t hurt, either. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “If it Takes a Lifetime” / “Speed Trap Towns” / “Hudson Commodore”

Freedy Johnston – Neon Repairman (Signing Magnet)

freedy johnston - neon repairmanI like to think this Kansas-born songwriter learned empathy from his Midwestern roots. The realist in me knows his adoptive New York home plays a larger role in shaping his worldview — there are more oddballs in Brooklyn than Topeka. But on album number nine, Johnston finds a worthwhile narrative wherever he pleases. There’s the dusty casino bum who loses at the poker table but wins the heart of a trailer park queen upon buying her an antique TV, and the title character who welcomes the darkness because that’s where he earns a living. His most poignant story is saved for the finale, where a war-torn veteran wrestles with the onset of PTSD. “I got a wife and kids, but I’m supposed to stay away from them,” he sadly quotes. Between light-hearted wordplay and serious-as-hell protest anthems, he delves into songs you’d swear are mere genre exercises if they weren’t so catchy. The standout is the quaint “Baby Baby Come Home,” a steady-handed plea for love that George Strait is right to covet. Also, dig the one about the astronaut who picks his profession over his girl because, “the first to leave the world is the first to see the world.” Can’t argue with that. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Baby Baby Come Home” / “A Little Bit of Something Wrong” / “TV in My Arms”

This article appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015 edition of The Monitor