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Sunday, June 21, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
June 20, 2015
Scott Foley

Anytime I'm gone from the mic for a couple weeks, I inevitably return with too many new things to air.  This week, "too many new things" includes a Warren Zevon tribute from Lucero, Have Gun Will Travel's concept album about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, and former Slobberbone and Drams-man Brent Best.  Also, please don't make me wait too long to hear the rest of Nathaniel Rateliff's new Night Sweats project.  

Almost exactly at the halfway point through "Children Of Children" on Jason Isbell's new Something More Than Free, there is an unexpected drum crack, which ushers in a rain of gorgeous strings.  The strings are pushed aside after a couple measures by a rude cloud of guitar noise, backed by thundering drums.  It's the biggest sound Isbell has ever created, and it cuts a line between his stellar career to date and what's to come. 

As you'll recall, Isbell's Southeastern defined 2013 for me - a moving, visceral collection of personal songs, appropriately recorded sans his 400 Unit backing band.  Southeastern producer Dave Cobb has returned, and so has much of Isbell's band, including Mrs Isbell, Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals.  Something More isn't necessarily louder, per se.  "If It Takes a Lifetime", for instance, will likely garner a Best Song nod for next year's Americana awards.  A good natured ramble, it connects Isbell to the Guy Clark lineage:  "A man is the product of all the people that he ever loved".  Both "Flagship" and the title cut tread relatively familiar workin' class territory, too.  To date, it's what Jason Isbell has done so well.   

Reports have quoted Isbell that Something More Than Free is a more optimistic, forward-looking collection compared to Southeastern, which earned him an armload of Americana Music Awards for Artist, Album and Song of the Year.  “[I'm] trying to explain relationships between people and relationships with an individual and his or her past, and the sort of things you trade in to be happy the older you get — I think that’s a big concern on this record.”  Forward-thinking, yes.  Perhaps not happier.  Where "Flagship" allows a hopeful glance into a couple's possible future, "How To Forget" counters with self-doubt in the wake of an ex's biting dismissal:  "Was I good to you? Was it hell? Was it fun? Did you think I was the one? Was I good to you?".  "Life You Chose" even goes so far as flirting with the fantasy of reconnecting with an early flame:  "Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you? ... Just tonight I realized I am still in your backseat / And nothing I've had since has meant a thing to me".  

Something More Than Free is focused on a future-distant point, but largely haunted by the past.  Where we come from, and why we're no longer there; the undeniable pull of memory and identity.  Songs like "24 Frames" dwell on that line between our yearning for the past and the lure of the future's shining promise.  The single is one of the album's gems:  "You thought God was an architect, now you know / He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow".  "To a Band That I Loved" is a tremendous and personal ode to Centro-Matic:  "Somehow I'm still out here seeing your faces ..."  No matter how far or how successfully we've moved on, our strings remain tangled with what's gone before.  

Back to "Children Of Children".  It's a song that begins in sepia tones of the small town past.  Isbell's masterful lyrics soon betray that these memories are fraught with guilt and regret, as the tune's early acoustic guitar reveals glimpses of the storm of sound to come.  The electric guitar, the grit and the noise crop up here and there throughout the masterful collection, presenting Isbell as an artist who will become larger than the genre that has embraced his work to date.   

I’ve lived with the record for about a week, to the point where “that new CD smell” has faded a bit.  My relationship with an album is not entirely unlike that with a sweetheart  (wrote the blogger who’s been married for 25+ years): the initial novelty and euphoria, the subsequent “getting to know you” period, and the gradual settling, familiarity and recognition.  I return to this page to confidently announce that I think this is the real thing.  Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free might just be a masterpiece.

*  Tallest Man On Earth, "Fields Of Our Home"  Dark Bird Is Home  (Dead Oceans, 15)
*   Rocky Votolato, "Sparks Of Recovery"  Kindred Spirit  (SideOneDummy, 15)
*  Spirit Family Reunion, "All the Way Back Home"  Hands Together  (SFR, 15)
*  Kristin Diable, "Time Will Wait"  Create Your Own Mythology  (Speakeasy, 15)
*  Jackie Greene, "Trust Somebody"  Back To Birth  (Yep Roc, 15)  D
*  Danny & the Champions Of the World, "Clear Water"  What Kind Of Love  (Loose, 15)
*  Deslondes, "Out On the Rise"  the Deslondes  (New West, 15)
*  Fox Street, "Long Road Home"  Authentic Western Style  (Fox St, 15)  C
*  Alabama Shakes, "Miss You"  Sound and Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, "S.O.B."  Night Sweats  (Stax, 15)  C
*  Shinyribs, "Baby What's Wrong"  Okra Candy  (Mustard Lid, 15)
*  Sam Outlaw, "Ghost Town"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)
*  Banditos, "The Breeze"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  T Hardy Morris, "Young Assumption"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  the Arcs, "Stay In My Corner"  Your Dreamily  (Nonesuch, 15)  D
*  Joe Ely, "Long Snake Moan (live)" Live Shots  (UMG, 80)
*  Old Man Luedecke, "Early Days"  Domestic Eccentric  (True North, 15)  D
*  Phil Cook, "Great Tide"  Southland Mission  (Thirty Tigers, 15)  D
*  Iris Dement, "Like a White Stone"  Trackless Woods  (Flariella, 15) 
*  Lucero, "Went Looking For Warren Zevon's Los Angeles"  All a Man Should Do  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Two Cow Garage, "Continental Distance"  single  (Last Chance, 15) 
*  Have Gun Will Travel, "Spirit Of Discovery"  Science From An Easy Chair  (This Is American Music, 15)  D
^  Jason Isbell, "Children Of Children"  Something More Than Free  (Southeastern, 15) 
*  Brent Best, "Queen Bee"  Your Dog Champ  (Last Chance, 15)  D

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