Music Marathon 2009 Part 7 (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – A.C. Newman)
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – s/t
And here’s the final Drive-By Truckers entry this year (and that’s not even counting the decent-sounding Booker T. collaboration they released, that I listened to and never got around to picking up, and Live from Austin, TX, which I haven’t heard yet). One of my chief complaints about ex-DBT singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, is that the backing sounded a little tentative and under-rehearsed in the same way that the backing sounds tentative and under-rehearsed on Patterson Hood’s solo album this year. The good news: Isbell now has a road-tested band of able musicians backing him up. The bad: the songs still aren’t anywhere near as good as his DBT contributions.
Or maybe it’s just that his sound, newly tightened though it may be, has gotten a little too mellow. The best thing about Isbell with DBT is that the guy may be a pop writer at heart, but his collaborators brought out his dark side, lyrically, and his rocker side, instrumentally. Judging from the performances I’ve seen with the 400 Unit, his current band is fully capable of doing this, as well, but Isbell seems to be going for a lighter, tidier sound on his albums. He’s gone a little more classic southern soul this time, and he manages to wear this style remarkably well for a young white guy, but there’s still something a little predictable and disappointing about Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. There was something about songs like “Goddamn Lonely Love” and even “Decoration Day,” a song that’s decidedly not autobiographical, that made them seem heartfelt. The love songs and character studies on this album are still generally well-designed and I’m actually pretty fond of most of them (especially “Cigarettes and Wine,” the best of the three slowburning R&B waltzes here), but they don’t sound like they were begging to be written or played like his old stuff does.
For the record, I’m completely torn on “Good.” I go back and forth on whether it’s evidence that he has another “The Day John Henry Died” (his best straight-up rock song to date) in him or merely a calculated and hamhanded attempt to make the album more “rock.” (Admission – even with the worst lyrics Isbell’s ever written and a ham-handed post-bridge key change, I still turn it up in the car.)
Marked Men – Ghosts
People keep telling me how good this is, but it just sounds like a whole bunch of straightforward, melodic, well-played punk rock to me. Nothing wrong with it; I’m just not sure why an album like Ghosts stands out in what I assume is still a fairly crowded genre.
The Mars Volta – Octahedron
I’ve given up on Mars Volta a couple times. The first time was right after De-Loused in the Comatorium, which delivered on the technical end, but left me kind of cold on the emotional end – too many go-nowhere solos, impenetrable lyrics, and compositions that piled on the parts but never really cohered. Then I gave up on them again after Frances the Mute, which was said to deliver on songs that were actually… songs, but largely didn’t. But a friend told me that Octahedron was easily their tightest yet in terms of songwriting, and I was pleased to discover that he was absolutely right. In fact, I can’t believe the musical press isn’t all over this album, in fact: “The Mars Volta Finally Releases an Album Non-Diehards Would Want to Listen To!”
In fact, the first pair of songs (“Since We’ve Been Wrong” and “Teflon” – yes, this album features song titles and even prominent lyrics that don’t require a Mars Volta-English dictionary) is so good that I was just waiting for the band to blow it. But they don’t. If not all of the material quite reaches the heights of that auspiciously melodic, creepy, and compellingly off-time beginning, it generally comes close, and “Cotopaxi” might even raise the stakes. Coming across like Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis” as played by Led Zeppelin, it’s catnip to time-change freaks like me who can’t deal with proggy and mathy unless there are hooks and structure to go with it.
So, yeah, I’m giving a Mars Volta a good review with barely any qualifications (the usual caveats are in place, of course – Cedric Bixler Zavala will always be an acquired vocal taste of Geddy Lee proportions and if you’re into lyrics, this probably isn’t for you). I didn’t even give the Decemberists that much of a pass this year.
Mastodon – Crack the Skye
Sounds like Mastodon but with more singing, slower tempos, etc. Which means I like it well enough, but probably won’t listen to it all that much. That’s usually how it goes with me and Mastodon.
Monsters of Folk – s/t
As far as supergroups go, Monsters of Folk is about as unassuming as they get. Then again, of the four collaborators, only Jim James (My Morning Jacket) is particularly well-known as a stomper of guitar pedals and partaker of classic rock moves. The others – Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Mike Mogis (Oberst’s chief collaborator in Bright Eyes and clearly the Jeff Lynne of the bunch) – tend to stay on the lyrical, acoustic pop side of things, even if Oberst has occasionally turned up the volume in Desaparecidos and Ward does engage in some brill-building with She & Him. But the overlap of these four artists is really in low-volume, thoughtful folk rock, and they generally stick to that mode to good effect on Monsters of Folk.
There probably aren’t any songs that quite stack up to the best work of either Oberst or James (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Z, respectively), but some come close. The James-sung “Losin’ Yo Head” could have fit on either of the last My Morning Jacket albums (potentially improving the frustrating Evil Urges), and the pretty “Magic Marker” probably wouldn’t have made sense anywhere but here. Oberst’s best tracks are “Say Please” and “Ahead of the Curve,” both of which could be Bright Eyes songs, but since Oberst and Mogis are the only two constants in Bright Eyes, that shouldn’t surprise anyone (on the downside, “Man Named Truth” carries some of Oberst’s worst lyrical tendencies along, as well). I’m more lukewarm on Ward, generally, but he rises the occasion here. I’ll take “Whole Lotta Losin’” over anything on his solo album from this year (whoops – spoiler alert).
Maybe not essential for anyone who isn’t already invested in one or more of these guys, but it’s a nice, pleasant listen, and the artists’ distinctive styles manage to shine through while being incorporated into a satisfying whole.
The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
I like John Darnielle’s music. I like when artists use unusual frameworks to present their songs. I even like the idea, specifically, that each of the songs on The Life of the World to Come is meant to represent, in very loose terms, a particular verse of the Bible. But I’ve listened to The Life of the World to Come probably 10 times now, and barely any of it sticks with me at all. The sound isn’t all that removed from his last album, Heretic Pride, which I reviewed very positively last year, so I can’t figure out what the problem is. I do like “Genesis 3:23,” though. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a video up for that one.
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Much like my problem with the new Mountain Goats album, I’m not sure what it is about A.C. Newman’s solo stuff that just doesn’t hit me like his work with the New Pornographers. I still like it, mind you, but the best New Pornographers stuff knocks me on my ass, and the best A.C. Newman solo stuff sounds kind of like the New Pornographers on auto-pilot. I’m tempted to attribute it to a stripped-down sound, but it’s hard to square that with all of the extra percussion and other production touches on Get Guilty. It’s just that, even with all of this extra stuff (and even with notables like Mates of State and Nicole Atkins pitching in vocally where Neko Case and Kathryn Calder would in the NPs), the songs still feel slighter, the arrangements and performances too restrained. It probably says something (maybe more about me than him) that the most ornate productions like “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve” and “Prophets” stand out as both the best and the most like Newman’s current main project (although, interestingly, “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” could have been on an album by Newman’s previous band, Zumpano).