Sound — 9
It's not often that I hear the word "masterpiece" and agree wholeheartedly, if at all, especially concerning an album... However, after one (or maybe two) listens to Jason Isbell's "Southeastern," I had to agree with all of the rave reviews I'd read about it. There aren't any other reviews of Jason's music on this site, so maybe it would help if I back-peddled just a little bit...
Jason was born and raised in northern Alabama to a very musical family, first learning to play the mandolin at a young age on his grandparent's farm, taking up the guitar soon after. He began to play in a country cover band as a teenager and even played the Grand Ole Opry at the age of 16. He knew Patterson Hood's father, David Hood from seeing him play restaurants and bars in the area.
After working in Muscle Shoals' FAME Studio as a songwriter, his big break came at the age of 22 when he joined Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's band, the Drive-By Truckers as a touring guitarist supporting their third album, "Southern Rock Opera." Jason has said it was around this time that he really hit the "rock 'n' roll" lifestyle hard, binge drinking Jack Daniels, doing cocaine and marrying the Drive-By Truckers' bassist, Shonna Tucker. Jason stayed in the Truckers for their next three albums, 2003's "Decoration Day," 2004's "The Dirty South" and 2006's "Blessing and a Curse."
In 2007, Isbell left the Truckers to pursue a solo career (and partially because of the drinking and coke habit), soon releasing his debut solo effort, "Sirens of the Ditch." He formed his current band, The 400 Unit soon after and released two follow-up albums, 2009's "Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit," and 2011's "Here We Rest." The song "Alabama Pines" from "Here We Rest" was named Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Music Awards, and Jason went on to tour supporting singer-songwriter and friend, Ryan Adams.
Earlier in 2012, Adams and Isbell's future wife, violinist Amanda Shires helped get Jason into rehab for his worsening alcoholism... Two days after finishing the recording of "Southeastern," Isbell and Shires were married by musician Todd Snider.
Now that everyone knows the man's story, we can move on to what I originally thought of writing... After getting sober, Jason had initially planned on going into the studio to record a solo, acoustic album but has said that producer, Dave Cobb and he both became bored of that idea and decided to bring in The 400 Unit. The instrumentation on "Southeastern" is fairly stark and low-dynamic. Most songs on the record are basically just Jason's voice with his acoustic guitar with maybe some quiet drumming, bass guitar and keyboards sprinkled throughout the album's 47 minutes. His wife, Amanda Shires does contribute some backing vocals and fiddle on a couple of tracks. Amanda (an accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right) compliments Jason's voice very nicely and the fiddle playing is beautiful, not sounding as sharp and whiny as other fiddles I've heard in the past. The music fits Jason's dark, somber storytelling perfectly and the production is excellent, although I think Amanda's voice could've been brought up in the mix just a hair or two on some songs...
1. "Cover Me Up" - For the second year in a row, Isbell received the Americana Music Award for song of the year with the album's opener "Cover Me Up"... A slow moving acoustic tune with loving, thoughtful lyrics. Written about how Amanda stayed with him through the darkness of his past and helped him find sobriety.
2. "Stockholm" - This song allows The 400 Unit to shine for the first time on the album. Drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, piano and Amanda's backing vocals all can be heard clearly on this tune. Lyrically, I believe "Stockholm" is about moving on from the past, again with allusions to Jason and Amanda's relationship being sort of a saving grace in his life.
3. "Traveling Alone" - The chorus of this song perfectly sums up the song's message, "I'm tired of traveling alone, won't you ride with me?" Amanda's fiddle is heard for the first time in this tune, along with some quiet drums and bass with some light electric guitar picking. Once again though, it's Jason's voice and acoustic guitar shining through.
4. "Elephant" - Cancer. It's more than likely affected everyone's life in one way or another. This is a song about just that. A piano is the only thing behind Jason and his guitar in this tune as he tells a dark tale of a man named Andy who falls in love with a woman he meets at a bar who later is killed by the disease. "Elephant" is probably the most haunting, beautiful and heartbreaking song I've ever listened to...
5. "Flying Over Water" - What kind of song could follow such a flat-out depressing song such as "Elephant"? How about a complete 180? "Flying Over Water" completely shifts the gears of the album. The first of two electric rock songs on "Southeastern," "Flying Over Water" features much brighter instrumentation and even a kind of Neil Young sounding guitar solo from Isbell. I think the lyrics could be taken as being about fear of the unknown.
6. "Different Days" - One of my favorites on this album and the first I learned how to play on the guitar, "Different Days" (I think) is telling the story of a couple wanting to run away together and the narrator claiming to have changed his ways. As for additional instrumentation? As on most of the record, there's very little to be found. A bass guitar and keyboard are all that's heard behind the vocals and acoustic guitar.
7. "Live Oak" - I don't often think, "wow this song could be turned into a movie...," however with "Live Oak," that was one of my first thoughts. In this song, Jason tells the story of a man who's been on the run since the age of 17, keeping to himself and never settling down. When he finally does settle down with a woman he falls in love with, rumors of his dark past begin circulating the small town and his neighbors begin to turn against him. He tells his lover of how he and the boys he used to run with "Robbed a Great Lakes Freighter and killed a couple men aboard..." Of course this causes trouble in the relationship and he eventually kills her and takes off on the run again. Great plot for a movie, right? Quick! Someone call Leonardo DiCaprio!... But before I get too far off the rails, I'm sure you can guess by now that there's not a whole lot of bells and whistles to this song. After an a capella intro and acoustic strumming throughout, some quiet keyboards, a light violin and an electric guitar can be heard playing during the instrumental break before the final verse.
8. "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" - Another favorite of mine, this tune could be taken as being a breakup song. Jason sings of a man who's woman leaves him after he gets into a fistfight in a bar. Although the man in the song is wishing she'd come back home to him, deep down he knows that she won't. As the title implies, the chorus recalls the songs he can remember her singing in the shower:
"The songs that she sang in the shower all ring in my ear, like 'Wish You Were Here'... How I wish you were here..." This tune starts out fairly bare-bones, as per normal on this album, but begins to build toward the end. The bridge and the final chorus act as a sort of crescendo, adding Amanda's violin, keyboard and a slightly overdriven electric guitar over top of the acoustic and bass.
9. "New South Wales" - This is a song that's definitely had to grow on me since the first time I heard it. I'm still not entirely sure what it's about, but if I had to guess (which I feel I do), I'd say that this song, like "Stockholm" earlier in the album is a song about Jason's rough past. I think he's also singing about his career as a musician, the temptations that can come along with that and the fact that he'd been able to get sober and get away from "the sand that they call cocaine" and "the p-ss they call tequila." Instrumentally, there are a pair of acoustic guitars, one playing short solos after each chorus. There are also some very quiet drums in the background, bass and Amanda's fiddle playing a melody similar to the chorus. Listening to this song as I write, I can hear a little bit of a Ryan Adams influence to this tune.
10. "Super 8" - Here it is, the second electric rock song on the album, and this one rocks much harder than "Flying Over Water." "Super 8" has had to do the most growing on me out of the entire record. I didn't even really like this one when I first heard it. It's SO upbeat, rocking and fun that I just felt it didn't fit on such a somber, delicate sounding album. I got past that thought and actually paid attention to the song itself and have grown to love it. It has a big Drive-By Truckers southern rock feel, and I think the lyrics are definitely inspired by his time in the Truckers. It tells the story of a band playing a great gig to a great crowd and then drinking, fighting and just raising so much hell in their Super 8 motel that the narrator feels like it could kill him. This song truly showcases how good The 400 Unit is and is the most band-oriented song on the album with pair of overdriven electric guitars (one of which playing some pretty George Thorogood sounding slide licks), bass, drums and Jason's somewhat humorous lyrics.
11. "Yvette" - Much like the contrast between "Elephant" and "Flying Over Water," the song following such a fun rocker like "Super 8" is a complete 180 degree shift. "Yvette" is another slow, dark song. This time, Isbell's lyrics tackle the subject of the sexual abuse of a daughter by her father... As I said, a complete 180... Yvette is the girl's name in question and the narrator is contemplating killing the father. "Yvette" was written as a companion piece to a song from his previous album, "Here We Rest" called "Daisy Mae" which deals with a similar thought. At first, the piano is louder than Jason's acoustic guitar. There's an electric guitar occasionally heard throughout the song with a solo near the end right before the final verse.
12. "Relatively Easy" - The album closer, "Relatively Easy," I think is about how people in the United States can get caught up in the little annoyances and inconveniences of life and tries to remind listeners that they have it good compared to people in other parts of the world. Jason sings verses telling of problems he's had in his life (namely the suicide of a friend and getting arrested) but the chorus acts as that reminder that he's had it "relatively easy." This song, in my opinion has the most interesting sounding acoustic part on the album, there's a keyboard and bass guitar present along with Amanda's backing vocals. I think her voice could've been brought up in the mix a bit more. There's a slide guitar solo played before the bridge, final verse and outro, bringing the song and the album to a close.
Lyrics — 10
Jason Isbell is (again, in my opinion) one of the greatest songwriters alive today. His way with words is something I can only dream of having as a songwriter, myself. Throughout the "Sound" section of the review, I referred to quite a few of his songs as stories, because really that's what his songs are. "Live Oak," "Different Days," "Elephant" and "Super 8" in particular I would say most clearly show this. Telling stories set to music.
As with all of his solo albums, but especially on "Southeastern" it seems, the music and the lyrics meld together perfectly. The music and melodies helping to convey the emotion of the lyrics and letting his lyrical abilities really be at the forefront of the album all the way through.
Is Jason Isbell the greatest singer alive? No, but he doesn't have to be. Over the course of his three album stint in the Truckers, and his four solo albums, he's really found his voice and learned to use it to his advantage. Not trying to hit note he just can't reach, but able to belt out lines with confidence and a subtle power (this is especially apparent in the chorus of "Cover Me Up"). His voice fits his lyrics and his lyrics fit the music that he and The 400 Unit play. He's definitely found his niche in the alt-country/Americana/folk world.
Overall Impression — 9
There aren't many artists or albums I could compare Jason Isbell and "Southeastern" to. As I stated earlier, there's a little of a Ryan Adams feel to "New South Wales," but really that's all I can find. Lyrically, there's a bit of a James McMurtry-esque sound to Jason's music (if anyone knows who James McMurtry is...).
Growing up, Jason has said he was inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd and southern rock, I'd say that's where "Super 8" comes from. Since releasing "Southeastern," he and Amanda have released a surprise EP called "Sea Songs" that featured a duet of Warren Zevon's "Mutineer," so it's probably safe to say that Zevon is also an influence of his.
The most impressive songs on the album I think are "Cover Me Up," "Elephant" and "Live Oak." I love just about everything about this album, I can't think of anything I really dislike except maybe the volume (or lack thereof) of Amanda's voice on a couple of tracks. If this album were stolen, I'd be upset at first, though I have it backed up on my computer so I could burn another copy. Then I'd just be happy that someone else is discovering such a talented artist.
"Southeastern" was one of my favorite albums of 2013 and still gets listened to fairly regularly. Jason and The 400 Unit are currently working on a follow-up to this album, I can't wait to hear what he has in store for us next.