JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS album review

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS

Southeastern, 2020

Americana/Alternative country

Today we’re looking at the new album from Jason Isbell. And it’s good, because it’s by Jason Isbell. That’s it. That’s the review… Okay, okay, I’ll give you a little more now that I’ve so clearly telegraphed my biases towards this particular artist. Alternative country was a major player in the redemption of country music in my mind. The way the genre balances elements of heartland rock, Americana, and folk to create its own brand of country that’s undeniably authentic showed me that the genre was not doomed to a future of tropes and cliches. One of the best purveyors of alternative country in recent years has been Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

Reunions is Isbell’s seventh album, and the fourth with The 400 Unit. The songs do feature quite a few reunions, but not the kind you might expect. In an interview on Austin City Limits Live, Isbell said that, “there are a lot of ghosts on this album.” These are literally the ghosts of people who have passed and figuratively the ghosts of life in the past. These show up in a big way within the first few tracks. “Dreamsicle” tells the story of a troubled childhood marked by arguing parents and constant moves to new places, and all the narrator could do was do his best to enjoy his childhood while he was still too naive to understand how bad things were.

A more literal ghost appears on “Only Children,” a song that recounts a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, but also struggled with addictions that ended up killing him. Death returns later in the album on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, Amanda Shires, after a dear friend of hers died by suicide. In it he expresses how he understands how she loved him and that he’s there to console her while she grieves. The complicated nature of love is covered on songs “Overseas” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed.” The first describing feelings for someone the narrator just cannot be with and the latter describing the way lovers dive in blindly.

The lyrics on this album are just so good. They’re always one of the greatest strengths of a Jason Isbell record. There are more songs that tell stories of desperate men, doing what’s right when it’s the hard thing to do, and being a father. I could go on gushing track by track, but there is more to this album. Great lyrics can only get you so far if the instrumentals don’t serve them well.

Fortunately, The 400 Unit deliver on this front. Reunions stays pretty firmly within the bounds of Americana and alt country even when the songs get a little louder and more rock oriented. But they also know when to pull back for quieter moments. Every track sounds as sad, hopeful, scared, or angry as the stories the lyrics tell. My only real complaint is that not every track is incredibly memorable in a way where it sticks with you, though several are. That, and the fact that the album opener, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a little repetitive and long.

Overall, this is a strong offering from Jason Isbell and company, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. He’s proven himself to be an incredible songwriter over and over, and The 400 Unit provide the perfect backing for his stories. It’s not without it’s faults, and I wish more songs had stronger staying power. I don’t know if Reunions will give us another “If We Were Vampires,” but it’s a great album nonetheless.

4.0/5.0

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY album review

TRIVIUM – WHAT THE DEAD MEN SAY

Roadrunner, 2020

Heavy metal/Metalcore

This past week, metal was only a few albums away from being literally half of the new releases I listened to. Given that ratio, it seemed fitting to review a metal album. Choosing what to review was surprisingly difficult as there were more than a couple releases that stood out for different reasons. I finally landed on Trivium for a few reasons, and I’d be lying if I said one of them wasn’t the fact that you’re more likely to click on an article with Trivium in the title than you are one with Sölicitör or Warbringer.

Another thing that I will admit is that I went into this album without the highest expectations. I know that Matt Heafy and the other guys in the band are all solid dudes, but Trivium is a metalcore band that broke out and gained popularity while I was in high school. Most bands that fit that description aren’t making the best music this far along in their career, especially ones that got as big as Trivium. They’re usually making very safe but ultimately bland music that will satisfy longtime fans, but won’t do much beyond that. So that’s pretty much what I expected when I hit play on What the Dead Men Say, and boy was I wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things you notice is that this album just feels tight and lean, not just in size, but in sound and structure. Guitarist Corey Beaulieu told Loudwire that this album came out of “a highly-inspired and fast-paced writing and recording process…” and you can feel that urgency in these songs. There’s no real fluff here, no grand arrangements; just four guys making some badass metal music. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, but that’s by design. Matt Heafy said in the same Loudwire article that this album “is everything that is Trivium.” To use an automotive metaphor, Trivium doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel because they’re like a company like Enkei or BBS; they’re just really damn good at making wheels.

This translates to every single song having at least one attention-grabbing moment. This is still metalcore music, but it doesn’t have the tropes and cliches of the genre that other bands fall prey to. They also pull off the very impressive feat of having not one, but two songs that are 6+ minutes long and not boring. “Catastrophist” in particular plays almost like a prog metal track, switching up its riff structures and rhythms to keep things interesting. Even slower songs come and go without overstaying their welcome. The albums is also lyrically relevant with one song coming across as anti-war and a few others being about marginalized people and standing up to those who take advantage of them. And going back to “Catastrophist,” while Heafy doesn’t really give any details, it’s not hard to see similarities between the catastrophist in the song and a certain public figure.

As much as this album surprised me and as much as I enjoyed it, there are things that I think could be better. Despite being very good metalcore, there was never really a “wow” moment for me. There was nothing that stopped me in my tracks while I was listening. Second, while there are songs that touch on heavy and relevant subjects, there are moments where the lyrical content can get a little light. And there’s even a track where the second verse is a repeat of the first. Finally, I have a little nitpick where I wish the guitar tone and mixing was a little beefier. It felt like it just lacked that lower end that gets you hooked into the riffs.

Overall though, this is a very impressive album. To have a metalcore band this far in their career release an album that can hold my attention with no fluff or filler is quite an accomplishment. Trivium have been honing their skills for nearly two decades and What the Dead Men Say is a good example of how that hard work can pay off. Trivium is good at what they do, but they don’t use that as an excuse to get lazy. There are aspects of the album that I think could have used a little more spice or something, but otherwise it’s a very solid release.

4.0/5.0

BRANDY CLARK – YOUR LIFE IS A RECORD album review

BRANDY CLARK – YOUR LIFE IS A RECORD

Warner, 2020

Country

Given that we just observed International Women’s Day this past weekend, I figured I would feature one of the many albums made by women that were just released. I landed on this new record from country singer and songwriter Brandy Clark. Normally, I wouldn’t give a release like this too much attention, but then I learned that she co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Kacey Musgraves and has songwriting credits on a few of Musgraves’ releases. If you know me, you know this is more than enough to get my attention, and I will say that I’m glad I decided to dig a little deeper into this one.

Since Brandy Clark is known as a songwriter, let’s start off by looking at the songwriting. And perhaps what impressed me most about this album is that there really isn’t a single lyrical dud on it. Modern country music can often reek of cliches and tropes, and while the female artists tend to fall prey to them less often than the men, they do have their own. Clark manages to practically avoid all of them. Even when songs get dangerously close like on “Long Walk” and “Bigger Boat,” both songs manage to end with their dignity intact.

The songs are really at their best when they’re telling relatable stories about real people. Take “Pawn Shop” with its recent divorcee and failed musician going into the titular store and selling things that ended up costing more than they bargained for. Or “Bad Car” with its narrator sad to see an old car go away despite how unreliable it was because of the memories it holds. About half of the tracks are about love and heartbreak with the final three tracks forming a kind of trilogy of various stages of the aftermath of a falling out. But even these topics are covered in a way that never induces eye roll or cringe.

Musically, the album is a little less exciting for me. I personally tend to prefer the more folksy, vintage, or rock-tinged sounds of outlaw country, but this album falls on the more tolerable side of big pop country productions. Much like the nearly-cliche lyrics, the instrumentals sometimes knock on the door of being over produced, but never quite cross that line. Sometimes the string arrangements can feel like a bit much, but what’s really surprising is the inclusion of horns, flute, and organ in a few tracks. These instruments in particular give the tracks hints of ’70s soul, which is pleasantly surprising.

One real outlier instrumentally is “Bigger Boat,” which features Randy Newman. It’s lilting rhythm and almost honky-tonk flavor feels like Newman could have written it himself, and it pulls off the difficult feat of being silly without being corny. It doesn’t feel out of place among the rest of the songs on the record. Unfortunately, except for maybe one or two exceptions, there’s no instrumental here that really stands out as unique or particularly captivating. There’s nothing here that will really stand out from the crowd musically on country radio. But again, this is a songwriter’s album, not a bro country release looking to land a huge hit. The content is what’s important.

Overall, I ended up enjoying Your Life Is a Record more than I expected when I gave it the time it deserved. In some ways it plays like a songwriter’s resume or portfolio. I could hear just about any country artist singing many of these songs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few showed up on some future release from one of Nashville’s superstars. There’s even songs on here that I wouldn’t be ashamed to be caught singing myself. The touches of soul music are nice, but I do wish the instrumentals were a bit more memorable. Even so, there’s no denying that this album has some of the realest songwriting that you’ll hear this side of mainstream country music.

4.0/5.0

LITURGY – H.A.Q.Q. album review

LITURGY – H.A.Q.Q.

YLYLCYN, 2019

Transcendental black metal/Avant-garde metal

It’s Black Friday, so I thought it might be fun to highlight a black metal album from the year. A sort-of Black Metal Friday if you will. I don’t know, maybe it’ll turn into a thing. Anyway I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer that, in general, I am not really a big black metal fan. I understand it, I know what they’re trying to do, but more often than not the music that comes out of the scene just isn’t for me. So when a black metal album comes around that I actually enjoy, there’s usually something about it that separates it from the norms of the genre (hence why I’m featuring a Liturgy album now).

Now, I know featuring Liturgy at all is going to be controversial to other fans of the genre, but regardless of how you think Liturgy does or doesn’t fit into the realm of black metal, you can’t deny the clear influence that black metal has on the music that they produce. For those that don’t know, Liturgy is an American band based in Brooklyn and fronted by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. The band’s lyrics and compositions are all built around a transcendental religious ideology that Hunt-Hendrix has developed over the years. A lot of the controversy surrounding Liturgy stems from the heavy-handedness and apparent pretentiousness of this philosophy. I’m not going to try to pretend what it all means, but the end result is some pretty damn good music, so more power to Hunt-Hendrix and his crew for that.

All that being said, H.A.Q.Q. is Liturgy’s fourth album, released digitally on November 12 with no prior announcement. The title is an acronym for Haelegen above Quality and Quantity, which refers back to Hunt-Hendrix’s belief system diagrammed on the cover of the album. Once again, I’m not going to pretend to know what any of that means so let’s just get to the music. Sonically, H.A.Q.Q. sits roughly between the band’s breakout release Aesthethica and their last release, The Ark Work. It’s filled with relentless metal intensity, augmented by classical instruments like strings, harp, and glockenspiel, broken up by piano interludes every eight minutes or so. The electronic influence of The Ark Work shows up in the occasional glitchy interruption. And it all closes with an ambient, droning finale.

Another break from The Ark Work is the absence of clean vocals or the bizarre “chanting” from some of it’s tracks. Most, if not all, lyrics are delivered in a harsh, black metal style. The album flows incredibly well. While you might think the piano interludes might disrupt the flow, they actually enhance it, serving as palate cleansers or relatively calm respites before going back into the intensity. And the metal tracks on this album are really, really intense. The album’s closer is brilliant because, while still technically harsh, provides almost an introspective release, allowing you to process the journey you just completed.

There’s only a couple negative things I can say about this album and they’re both really subjective. The primary one is a point that goes with any kind of avant-garde or experimental music: it’s not going to be for everyone. There’s no denying that this is a very challenging listen, and even though I think it’s great, it’s not an album that I’m just going to put on to listen for fun. The second is even more subjective and that’s the fact that Liturgy does not fit into the aesthetic or themes of black metal at all. Now, that’s 100% intentional on the part of the band, but if that’s something really important to you, you probably won’t be into this.

Overall, H.A.Q.Q. is a very impressive, but challenging piece of heavy music. Liturgy continues to push the boundaries and expectations of black metal as well as refining their own implementation of black metal as a transcendental medium. It is easily one of the band’s best releases, and while it might not be for everybody, you can’t deny that it is an incredibly well crafted collection of tracks.

4.0/5.0

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA album review

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA

Polydor, 2019

Soul/R&B

Michael Kiwanuka got on my radar back in 2012 with his debut, Home Again. I don’t quite remember where or how, but I heard the track “Tell Me A Tale” and I was just enamored with the meticulous recreation of that retro soul sound. I will admit that when I bought the album I was surprised to find that the majority of the tracks were much quieter, more acoustic-driven songs, but that didn’t effect how much I ended up loving it.

2016 brought us his very warmly received follow-up, Love & Hate. With this album Kiwanuka brought in producers Danger Mouse and Inflo and saw him embracing that retro soul sound even more (including the tendency of those artists to write 7+ minute songs). While the album was almost universally well reviewed, I personally felt that some of the personality of the first album was lost and I didn’t enjoy it as much.

This all brings us to his third (technically self-titled) album, KIWANUKA. Danger Mouse and Inflo both return as producers on this album. While my reaction to their last collaboration with Kiwanuka was less than stellar, Inflo did produce one of my favorite albums of this year so far (Little Simz’ GREY Area), so I went into this a little more hopeful. Right out the gate, things are looking better.

This album has Kiwanuka leaning hard into the retro style once again, but some of that personality that was lost on Love & Hate has been regained, signaled by a burst of noisy fuzz guitar within the first minute of the first track. This same guitar tone returns a few times on the album, and is just one of the ways that retro soul is interpreted through a modern lens on this album. In fact, the first five tracks of this album flow incredibly well. “Rolling” and “I’ve Been Dazed” flow so well, that I often think they’re the same track when I’m not paying attention.

Other standout tracks are “Hero” with its intro track and the 7 minute “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which is also the only 7+ minute track on this album, another improvement). Lyrically Kiwanuka is pulling from his retro soul influences again with lyrics of personal struggle that point political at times. He uses audio clips from the Civil Rights era of American history to further emphasize that while his lyrics would be at home on records from the ’70s, they are (unfortunately) still relevant today.

My one major complaint is that the album really starts to lose steam when you get to the final four tracks. None of these are particularly bad, but “Solid Ground” and “Light” in particular feel like they drag on a bit too long. There are also the interlude tracks. Some of them are great, like the intro tracks for “Piano Joint” and “Hero,” but “Another Human Being” and “Interlude (Loving The People)” do more to interrupt the flow of the track list than enhance it.

Overall I think KIWANUKA is a much better execution of what was attempted on Love & Hate, and honestly a pretty exciting release. He has taken greater steps to make this sound his own and has done a clever job of interpreting the modern world through a retro lens while interpreting that retro music through a modern lens. It’s a tricky balancing act that Kiwanuka is becoming more and more skillful in performing.

4.0/5.0

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY album review

STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY

Elektra, 2019

Blues rock/Psychedelic rock

Sturgill Simpson is a country and Americana singer and songwriter who refuses to be put in a box and takes pride in being a rebel. At least that’s what one would think based on his releases and actions, like busking outside the CMA awards in Nashville with his Grammy award for Best Country Album by his side.

SOUND & FURY is Simpson’s fourth album, following up the album that won him the aforementioned Grammy, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. While that album bucked country music traditions in its own way with strings and horns pushing songs into the territory of soul and funk, SOUND & FURY pushes boundaries even further with a sound that’s more balls-out boogie rock and roll than outlaw country. In fact, the only thing tying the sound of this album to anything released before it is Simpson’s distinctive drawl.

Simpson has described this album as a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll album” and it certainly delivers on that front. The guitars constantly have fuzz or filtering effects on them, with occasional synths and organs fighting for elbow room in the mix. The result is a sound that conjures a lot of descriptions, but “clean” is never one of them. Simpson’s vocals are often doubled with other effects, adding another layer of grease. It’s as if they took the concept of the rough recordings of The Black Keys early work and cranked up the sonic qualities and change a dusty recording to a grimy, post-apocalyptic one.

While songs like “Sing Along” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars” are some of the finest examples of the sleazy rock and roll–the former having a super steady drumbeat and synth bass pushing things towards late ’80s ZZ Top–other influences appear as well. “A Good Look” (co-written with John Prine) leans heavily towards disco and, for some reason, I imagine “Mercury In Retrograde” wouldn’t feel out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Lyrically the album delivers on the “sleazy, steamy” side with innuendos in the lyrics of “Remember To Breathe” and “Last Man Standing.” Other lyrical themes range from more typical blues rock fare like snide remarks at a former lover on “Sing Along,” but the most prevalent is the loneliness and alienation that accompanies fame on the tracks “Make Art Not Friends,” “Mercury In Retrograde,” and “Best Clockmaker On Mars.” The latter of the three might even be a reference to Dr. Manhattan from the graphic novel Watchmen.

A few lyrics add to the post-apocalyptic feel of the album, and likely provide the inspiration for the visuals of the anime film that accompanies the album. The film was made in collaboration with artist Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai, Batman Ninja) and Junpei Mizusaki (Batman Ninja). The film is more or less in the same vein as Daft Punk and Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555, in that there is no dialogue. The film only serves as a long-form music video for the entire album. Unlike Interstella, SOUND & FURY is non-linear, and in some ways more artistic, with some segments integrating live actors and having little to do with the central narrative. The film is worth watching at least once to get the full experience.

My only criticism of the album is that it can be sonically exhausting at times. I mentioned before that the instruments are often fighting for space. It’s a stylistic choice that gives a sense of a massive rock sound, and further drives the dirty, post-apocalyptic image that Simpson and his band are trying to conjure. However, there is very little breathing room on the album, and you are bombarded with a wall of sound for the better part of 41 minutes. There are a few welcome respites at the beginning of “Make Art Not Friends” and the entire track “All Said and Done,” but it’s not quite enough. The former is also a little too busy and loud for the sentiment it’s trying to convey.

Overall, I think SOUND & FURY is a great album, and easily the best raw, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll album I’ve heard all year. My followers on Instagram know that I praised the single “Sing Along” when it came out, saying that Simpson made a better Black Keys song than the Black Keys have in years. And I doubled down on that stance when I heard the whole album. It’s a style of rock music that I feel has been lacking in recent years and I’m happy to have Simpson’s offering to show me that it’s not dead.

4.0/5.0