Taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

Taking a listen

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell has undoubtedly had no trouble securing his own musical identity since the supposedly cordial detachment from his former band. His first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, was exacting in its departure from the country-goth signature of the Drive-By Truckers, and his first album with 400 Unit proves itself no different. The gritty Southern veneer of Patterson Hood and company that ostensibly influenced Isbell on DBT classics like “Outfit” and “Danko/Manuel” has nearly been evicted for a slicker, more straightforward blues aesthetic. The self-titled album, to be released on Feb. 17, highlights territory that he may have never entertained in his previous arrangement, which might at least partially explain the separation. It’s not that Isbell can escape his Southern heritage altogether, or that he even wants or is trying to, but he does seem dedicated to proving himself as more than simply a blue-collar rocker. The album’s first single, “Seven Mile Island,” is a rootsy, rhythmic tribute to the life of distinguished harmonica player Topper Price, with whom Isbell had a profound musical connection. “Cigarettes and Wine” is a contemplative lament to trashy, fly-by-night women, while “However Long” begins as a scathing criticism to war/terror fear mongers and religious hypocrites, but tails off into ambiguously defiant implication. Undoubtedly my favorite track on the album is the tearfully poignant “No Choice in the Matter,” a white man’s homage to classic ’60s soul that channels the expressive storytelling of Otis Redding complete with breezy brass accoutrement. It’s told from Isbell’s perspective about a man, “we’ll say a friend of mine/ a man I know real well,” and his rash actions while in the throes of unrequited love. Isbell’s strength has always been his storytelling and this track, along with the album as a whole, are indicative that he shows no sign of faltering in that regard.

Chris and Thomas — Land of Sea

What would happen if Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of farce-folk duo Flight of the Conchords were to shelve their comedic sides in exchange for more serious material, without really changing their songwriting formula? You might have something similar to Land of Sea, the first full-length offering from the Los Angeles-via-Liverpool pairing of Chris Anderson and Thomas Hein. It’s not that the two folk singers set out with the intention of resembling anything close to the jesterly HBO standouts; it’s just that the comparison of Chris and Thomas’ vocal harmony to that of the New Zealanders is inescapable, not to mention the thematic similarities in the songwriting of both parties. While FOTC made their name sending up the pretentious narrative elements that become prominent in the later years of classic folk, Chris and Thomas seem content in reviving some of those same clichéd storytelling angles for the sake of appearing thoughtful and profound. The unintentional cheesiness of lines like “listen to the quiet night/ by the crackling firelight/ tell the story of a thousand years/ before the time of man appeared” from the album’s title track evokes winces like the finest limburger. While much of the album’s songwriting might even seem right at home on a Tenacious D greatest hits compilation, the arrangements are still ornately complex and meticulous with a distinct Southwestern flavor. Obviously, their lyrical arcs diverge down different paths, as Chris and Thomas appear to retreat away from sheer whimsicality into more thoughtful material as the album goes along. If only the initial message didn’t leave the listener feeling a bit gassy afterwards. The duo will be appearing at the Garage on Wednesday.

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