Tag Archives: Jason Isbell

Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell is a fascinating, thought-provoking songwriter, and this is exactly the type of album that should, and does, stir conversation and differing perspectives. It seems like every person I’ve talked to who’s listened to this and every review or opinion I’ve read has added something different to my own thoughts. So it seemed like the perfect record for Brianna and I to collaborate on and share our thoughts in conversational form.

Conversation

Megan: I think we have to start out by making the point that this really didn’t turn out to be a political record.
Brianna: I was pretty afraid it would be, given the title of “White Man’s World.”
Megan: “White Man’s World” is really about as political as it ever gets. I already talked about that song, but I think it was a great message and better coming from a white man. And I think it’ll be more effective on this album that really isn’t too political otherwise.
Brianna: I think that was more effective too, but I have to agree with Trigger from Saving Country Music–we should all stop labeling each other and just be people. But yes, the song was very well done, and I liked it. It was very intense musically, and I liked the theme. It’s a very political time, and he did well with that song and the message he expressed about privilege.
Megan: Yes, I think the “stop labeling each other” bit was sort of what Jason was going for with “Hope the High Road.” I know that’s one place we disagree here; you enjoyed that song, but I think it has some mixed signals. Like that’s the message, but then he has the line, “there can’t be more of them than us.”
Brianna: I do think that line complicates things. I like the energy of the song, though.
Megan: You said something to me the other day about this record that fascinated me, so I think you should share it, and that was that this is a very restless album. So please, elaborate on that.
Brianna: Well, you have songs like “Anxiety.” I think that one best shows it. He’s very emotional and unsure; he’s anxious. I just think that theme gets played out a lot over the album. I mean, he’s wondering if he’s the only one who feels empathy on “Last of my Kind.” He’s wondering how the world will be for his daughter once she’s grown. I think it’s all very emotionally restless.
Megan: Yes, I think you’re right. I’d also say that restlessness comes out in sound. You have folk and rock and country, and I think he called this The Nashville Sound for a reason, because it’s almost like it can’t settle on anything.
Brianna: I’d have to agree with you on that. I mean, of course I like that it’s quite varied, but it just fits in very well with the whole restless theme. Adding to all that the many influences in Nashville, and I think you may have something there with the name.
Megan: At first, I didn’t like the hard, rocking “Cumberland Gap” sandwiched between “Last of my Kind” and “Tupelo,” both softer, more acoustic songs, but after you pointed out the restlessness, I realized that’s what connects them. The characters in those first three songs are all unhappy in the world they’re living in, and the difference is just that the guy in “Cumberland Gap” explodes about it, lol. By the way, “Last of my Kind” is a killer song. It hit me hard in a personal way. One of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Brianna: OH, now that’s a great point. It makes total sense now that you pointed it out. And I also loved “Last of my Kind.” There’s a moment where he talks about an old man being ignored by everyone but him–that moment was just so poignant.
Megan: What hit me most was that first verse, him not being happy in the city and people not dancing like him, all “clapping on the one and the three.” Actually, I just thought all the first five tracks were brilliant.
Brianna: I like that verse too, but something about the old man being ignored by everyone just got me. The first half is definitely the best for me too. After that, I start to have some issues. “Anxiety” is a really good song, and we’ve talked about how emotionally restless it is. I like that. However, the production is really messy, and it didn’t work for me. I also have pretty big issues with the production of “Chaos and clothes.” There are some layered vocals in that song that really distract me and keep me from digging deeper into the song. “Molotov” is one I’m still trying to figure out, and if you have any kind of insight into that one, I’m all ears.
Megan: “Chaos and Clothes” is awful. I don’t care how deep the lyrics are, or how artsy and cool it’s meant to be, that layering of the vocal track renders it unlistenable. Jason Isbell can make, or at least agree to, better production decisions than that. That’s what makes it even worse, he’s just better than that. “Anxiety” has really grown on me, and I do agree that he didn’t need the angry production behind him to help with the song. I’m struck enough by lines like “I’m out here living in a fantasy” and “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” on their own,” so the production takes it down a little. I feel like he was trying to be vulnerable, and it would have been better stripped back. I’m really enjoying “Molotov” after a few listens. Nice, nostalgic love song. It sort of pales in comparison to the genius that is “If we Were Vampires,” but it’s still a great song.
Brianna: Again, I completely agree with you about “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s weird and distracting, and it doesn’t sound great. I’m glad you figured “Molotov” out. Also, nothing will beat “If we Were Vampires” this year. I’ts impossible. I mean, it’s all about mortality, and the fact that because we have it, everything means so much more. I love that song.
Megan: It’s incredible. I think the closer will be a bit underrated, but “Something to Love” is a fine piece of writing too.
Brianna: OH, you have to appreciate “Something to Love.” From my perspective, it’s all about his daughter, and how he hopes she finds something that makes her happy despite the world’s darkness. I really like the song.
Megan: I agree, closes out the restless album with some hope. All in all, after some listens, strong 8 for me. The first half and the closer are stellar, with a couple of other good songs. It’s one of those rare times I actually wish the album had been longer, because on say, a 12-song project, this might be an 8.5 or even possibly a 9, but “Chaos and Clothes” and, for me, “Hope the High Road,” bring it down too much.
Brianna: I agree with you, I have to give it an 8 as well. I was thinking 7.5 at first–I know, unpopular opinion–but honestly? “If we Were Vampires,” “Last of my Kind,” and “White Man’s World” are fantastic. Add to that the fact that I really like all the rest aside from “Anxiety” and “Chaos and Clothes,” and I like 80% of the album…so 8 it is! I too think there was a bit too much filler and/or weird production choices to bring this album up to an 8.5 or 9. All in all, this is a solid album for me, but I still say Southeastern and Something More Than Free are better albums.
Megan: I like the songs of Southeastern, but it’s too dark for me as a fan. I love Something More Than Free, and I think this, in places, is stronger. That got a 9 from me here, and it was more consistent, but honestly, I’ll play this more. This is the Jason Isbell record I’ve connected to and enjoyed most overall.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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My Top 13 Songs of 2017 So Far

Editor’s Note: I wrote “my” instead of “Country Exclusive’s” for a reason; this does not necessarily reflect the views of our entire site. Also, these are not, and I repeat, not, in any order. Finally, with the exception of one song which I felt it would be idiotic to leave out, these are all from stuff we have covered in some fashion, either by a full-length review or perhaps through a feature in our “Memorable Songs from Overlooked Albums” pieces. Normally, I would restrict this to stuff one of us has actually written about, but that would leave out one song which, like I say, it would be a glaring sin not to bring up here. So take all this into consideration, and feel free to leave your own lists of songs and thoughts about these in the comments below!

Aaron Watson: “Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero
The first song to really blow my mind in 2017, this is a great and timely story about Isabel and her father, Mariano, who flee to America to escape the cartels of Mexico. Isabel ends up married to the narrator of the song, but her father is deported and later gunned down. It’s an honest and heartbreaking look at immigration, not to mention a brilliant song. Even better with the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream.”

Jaime Wyatt: “Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues
Jaime Wyatt is probably the name I’m most excited about breaking out in 2017. She has a way of singing about hardship that still manages to put a smile on your face, and this is just a stellar song that gets better every time I hear it.

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

This one comes off Puxico, which we didn’t review in full, but it was partly responsible for the “Memorable Songs” features because this track about the lonely, forgotten river town of Cairo, Illinois, is one of the best songs of the year and should by no means be overlooked.

Jason Eady: “Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled album
Purely from a songwriting standpoint, this has to be the cleverest thing to come out this year, telling us the story of the man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus, yet never mentioning Jesus or religion, and instead allowing the song to be a timeless track for everyone, although connecting even more deeply with those of faith.

Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True

From Wrangled
This just blew me away on the first listen; who’s going to tell you, especially at the beginning of their record, that look, dreams don’t come true, and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise? But it’s Angaleena Presley’s reality, and credit her for confronting it head-on to deliver us something so powerfully painful and honest.

Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”

Also from Wrangled
Angaleena Presley has the distinction of being the only one on the list with two entries, but this song is equally deserving. From the wonderful melody to the thought-provoking lyrics about being “wrangled” by her life and husband, this song stands out just as much as “Dreams Don’t Come True.”

Brad Paisley: “Gold All Over the Ground”

From Love and War
What, a mainstream name like Brad Paisley? Yes, that’s what I said. This is Paisley’s musical adaptation of a poem composed by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s, and they don’t make love songs like this anymore. Between the poetry of Cash and the arrangement of Paisley, it has definitely earned its place among the best songs so far in 2017.

Colter Wall: “Kate McCannon

From Colter Wall’s self-titled album
There were many outstanding songs on Colter Wall’s debut record, I just picked the one that shined a tiny bit brighter than the rest.

Chris Stapleton: “Either Way”

From From a Room, Volume 1
I didn’t always think Chris Stapleton showed emotion on his new album–sometimes he just belted songs, and they lost a little of the passion. But this is one moment where he absolutely killed it, and this version might be better than the original LeeAnn Womack version.

The Steel Woods: “Straw in the Wind”

From Straw in the Wind
What a dark, ominous tale–this one comes from one of our collaborative reviews, and Brianna and I both agreed that this story of a town where strangers “disappear like straw in the wind” is a standout of the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “If we Were Vampires”

Yeah, here’s the one I didn’t review, but this is one of the best songs of Isbell’s career, and when I said they don’t make love songs like that anymore about Paisley’s, I guess Isbell proved me wrong. He mentions all the details he loves about his wife, and more than that, he makes you think of death as a gift because it allows you to be a better lover and make the moments last. What a beautiful and morbid picture of love; I’ve never been sad, happy, and scared while listening to a love song before, but that’s what Jason Isbell does here.

Kasey Chambers: “Jonestown

From Dragonfly
The standout of Chambers’ recent double album, this one deals with hardship and discrimination and tells a great story. Probably the most underrated and least known one on the list.

Trisha Yearwood: “Maggie’s Dream”

This one is from the Gentle Giants album, and like I said before when I mentioned this song, I don’t care that it’s a cover, it’s still one of the best songs of the year. Trisha Yearwood delivered a better rendition of an already great song, and she’s earned her place on this list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Eady: “Black Jesus”
  • John Moreland: “Love is Not an Answer”
  • Lauren Alaina: “Same Day, Different Bottle”
  • Zac Brown Band: “All the Best”
  • Kelleigh Bannen: “Church clothes”
  • Rhiannon Giddens: “Better Get it Right the First Time”
  • Sam Outlaw: “Everyone’s Looking For Home”

Song Review: “White Man’s world” by Jason Isbell And the 400 Unit

Rating: 8.5/10

Let me first say I didn’t want to review every single from the new Jason Isbell album, so I didn’t cover “If we Were Vampires,” but that is one of the best songs of jason Isbell’s career. I wouldn’t have covered this one either, except that I feel it needs discussing, and more than a couple sentences in an album review. More than that, I see, understandably, that people are hesitant to review it because of the political backlash that could ensue. But we all pretty much knew Jason Isbell was going to get political at some point on this albu, and he released this song ahead of The Nashville Sound for a reason; he didn’t want it to be an album cut that people ignored or passed over, he wanted people to be talking about it, so I’m rising to that challenge.
Jason Isbell is quite up front in his delivery of this, speaking as the white man in a “white man’s world,” a “white man’s street,” a “white man’s town,” and “a white man’s nation.” This is what makes this song speaking out against discrimination arguably more hard-hitting; it’s not coming from a minority, it’s coming from a white man who recognizes that it’s a white man’s world and wants to change that. He looks at his daughter and notes that “thought this world could be hers one day, but her mama knew better.” He goes on to explain that “her mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her.” It’s acknowledging both the discrimination against women in general and specifically within Nashville and country music. Isbell goes on to lament that the highway was built over a Native Ameircan burial ground–“got the bones of the red man under my feet” and then regrets that he ever turned a deaf ear to “another white man’s joke” when he looks “into a black man’s eyes.” It’s told with frankness and honesty, and the little details like that last fact, that he has been guilty of ignoring such things in the past, make the song real and regretful as opposed to just preachy. He ends the song by saying that he still carries hope, maybe because of the “fire in my little girl’s eyes.” It’s exactly the kind of song we need in 2017, and credit to Jason Isbell, a white man, for being the one to deliver it.
My slight criticisms with this song have to do with the fact it doesn’t quite stick melodically. The verses do, when he’s listing the examples I mentioned, but the chorus isn’t really grabbing me, and in that sense, it sort of reminds me of the first single, “Hope the High road,” because the melody doesn’t stand out all that much. There’s some really nice blending of country and rock instrumentation, and the fiddle solo adds a nice touch. Still, although the music is where my criticism lies, it’s the lyrics that make this song important, and it’s the lyrics that Jason Isbell wanted us to be discussing and pondering. So, overall, it’s a very nice and timely song that has me looking forward even more to Jason Isbell’s record.

Written by: Jason Isbell

Album Review: John Moreland–Big Bad Luv

Rating: 8/10

Yeah, it took me quite a long time, several listens, and a detour in between to discuss the music of Kody West and Colter Wall before I could accurately put into words how I feel about this album. And that’s due to the sheer talent of John Moreland, the fact that his lyrics are on quite another level and hard to digest, let alone put onto paper, and generally that I felt this album is very good and deserved better words, even if written later, rather than words which were forced out just after the release. It’s always good to see success and talent coming out of my home state, and Tulsa’s John Moreland definitely has the talent–and a portion of the success. But this record could, and should, be the one that brings him to a new level of success and prominence.
I’ll say first that this album isn’t really country, although you’ll hear some country touches, like the occasional steel in “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” or the lively harmonica in the opener, “Sallisaw Blue.” It’s not really Red Dirt or country rock either, like so much music coming out of this region. It’s closer to Americana, with lots of nice piano and acoustic guitar brightening up the record, and actually the Apple Music description sums it up well: “Heartland folk rock, warm and tough like weathered denim.” “Warm” is the perfect word to describe the melodies; Moreland’s past work has been largely dark/depressing, but there’s definitely a happier tone to this album, perhaps due to Moreland’s recent marriage and current state of mind. regardless, the melodies will stick with you, and it’s that detail which elevates this record from something on the more boring singer-songwriter side to something more relatable because those melodies will get stuck in your head, and you’ll find yourself coming back and listening. It’s an album that works its way into your heart slowly, a bit like Jason Eady’s latest record. And credit to John Moreland for giving equal attention to his melodies–many Americana/folk projects suffer from the same problem of considering melody secondary to lyrics, and thus, while maybe telling a great story, often lose that story in a forgettable melody.
And speaking of those lyrics…I already said they’re on another level, and I can’t really put into words even now the poetry of John Moreland. As I say, you come back to this album for the melodies, but the more you listen, the more new things you unravel in the words, and you start to find lyrics that could rival the genius of even Jason Isbell–yes, that’s what I said. I’ll say that “Love is Not an answer,” accompanied by some of that beautiful piano I mentioned, and the acoustic “NO Glory in Regret” stand out as fantastic pieces of songwriting, but you just have to hear them to fully appreciate them, and that’s why I struggle to put the music of Moreland to paper; my words can’t do it justice, and it loses something in trying.
So after all this praise, why am I giving this album an 8? Well, it goes back to relatability. With all that deep songwriting, sometimes it’s just not accessible/relatable. It’s still hard to rate this because some people are going to absolutely love this album and call it a genius piece of art. Other people are going to hear it and say, “It’s good, but I can’t get into it.” Still others are probably still going to see it as boring despite its charming melodies and instrumentation. This is one of those times that I can see all angles, and this 8 is the best I can come up with as both a fair critic and an honest music fan. I do think it’s an album that grows on you, and people that buy it and listen to it multiple times will get more from it than people who stream it once and say it’s not for them. It took me lots of listens to fully appreciate it, and it’s still getting better. And that, as I say, speaks to the talent of Moreland, that his work improves with time.
So, would I recommend this? If you like older rock or folk rock or Americana, absolutely. There’s a beauty in these melodies and lyrics that is special. I’m not sure your average person looking for strictly country gets into this quite as much, but this is still real and raw and rootsy, so it just depends on your musical tastes. As I say, it won’t relate to everyone because of the sheer complexity with which John Moreland writes his songs, but it’s an album worth checking out, and it keeps getting better each time you hear it.
Standout Tracks: “Love is Not an Answer,” “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before),” “Sallisaw Blue,” “NO Glory in Regret,” “Amen, So Be It,” “lies I Chose to Believe”

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Song Review: “Cumberland Gap” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Rating: 9/10

I took some time with the second song from Isbell’s upcoming album before commenting on it here because “Hope the High Road” grew more and more forgettable as I listened to it. Brianna reviewed that, and she was quite impressed; so was I at first, but as I say, it started to get more generic. So I gave “Cumberland Gap” several listens, and I’m happy to say it’s having exactly the opposite effect, getting better each time.
“Cumberland Gap” speaks directly to the life and hardship in that region, but even if you’re not from that little stretch of a Appalachia running through Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, you can relate to a town with little else besides “churches, bars, and grocery stores” if you come from any little town in America or across the world. It’s that universality that makes the lyrics of the song stand out and will help many understand the pain the narrator feels as he tries to avoid facing the window at the local bar so he can imagine himself in any other town. It’s remarkable how these lyrics can still speak even with this heavy production–because let me tell you, this is not country or folk or singer/songwriter, this is rock, or perhaps more accurately southern rock. This is what Jason Isbell promised ahead of The Nashville Sound, and it’s certainly present on this song. That production works here, as it adds an edge and an anger to the darkness of these lyrics.
The one criticism I have against “Cumberland Gap” is sometimes the lyrics can be lost in the recording, and I wish I could hear them more clearly. It took several listens to make out some of them, and once I could, the song got even better. overall, though, this made me look forward to the album much more than “hope the High road.” But definitely be prepared for the rock production because if these two tracks are any indication, this will not be another Something More Than Free. Take that as you will; so far, I’m on board.

Written by: Jason Isbell