What more can you say about Jason Isbell? Multiple Grammy award winner, darling of the Americana scene, and judging by all interviews I’ve heard with him, a really nice and thoughtful guy, to boot. Isbell’s rise has been almost meteoric. In a normal, non-pandemic world, the release of his latest album with his band The 400 Unit called Reunions would have been greeted by massive fanfare and an ensuing and no doubt sold out mega-tour. Well, we are still not in a normal world at this moment and while critical acclaim has been plenty, other than a few streaming events the rest of the promotion thrust has been like sailing on the bay with no wind. It has been like that for most all artists who’ve released new music since March. Yet, Isbell’s latest is top notch in every way and form and well worthy of ears. And when this pandemic dust clears, the power and the fury of Reunions will no doubt be unleashed on the live front. For now, we savor it in its recorded fashion. It is in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week along with the latest album from Chuck Prophet called The Land That Time Forgot for which the vinyl version hits the streets on August 21. As steady as they come when it comes to making great records, Prophet’s latest is no exception. Let’s take a look.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Beginning with his critically acclaimed 2013 solo album Southeastern, the ascendency of Jason Isbell to the top of the Americana music mountain has been nothing short of impressive. It is the result of his talent as a songwriter, singer, and musician combined with an unfettered honesty in his approach to writing songs and making music. With his latest release with his band The 400 Unit called Reunions, the multi-Grammy, Americana, and CMA-winning Isbell seems poised to take it to the next level. The sonics of anthemic rockers like album opener “What’ve I Done to Help,” “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” “Be Afraid” and “Overseas” with its Neil Young-styled guitar histrionics are all huge and demonstrate an artist and band able to dish out the firepower on a whole other level. For comparison’s sake, think Black Keys as an example of a band that leapfrogged from small stages to arenas very quickly. Still, you gotta have the songs and once again Isbell is at the head of the class on that front with Reunions. These are songs of the human condition. From paying homage to a departed friend of he and especially his wife (“St. Peter’s Autograph”) to the daily confrontation to maintain his sobriety (“It’s Gets Easier”) to his own growing pains with fatherhood (“Letting You Go”), Isbell brings an eloquence and humanity to his songs that few can rival. Isbell’s true secret weapon in his arsenal just may be his 400 Unit bandmate and wife, Amanda Shires, whose fiddle work is timely and beautiful and whose high harmonies embellish a number of the tracks. The pandemic has certainly been a major blow to music artists completely eliminating the ability to tour which is such an important part of the release of a new album, such as Reunions. Even with his many awards, Isbell is no exception to the effects of it. All I can say is when all this virus dust clears and this album gets its proper presentation, watch out. Recommended. Visit www.jasonisbell.com.
The Land That Time Forgot
Yep Roc Records
Rock & roll will never die as long as Chuck Prophet continues making music. A career that dates back to his days as a guitarist with alt rockers Green on Red before going in a solo direction in the early 1990s (and a path he has been on ever since), Prophet’s latest chapter is the recently The Land That Time Forgot. It is his first album since leaving his long-time base of San Francisco and in typical Prophet fashion, it is a restless affair that blurs genre lines as far as the music goes and is freewheeling on the songwriting front. Blame it on the Borscht Belt? As Prophet tells it, it was on a solo tour that found him stopping at the recording studio of a pal, Old Soul Studios in the Catskills, that provided great inspiration for the musical direction of the album. As Prophet tells it, “At Old Soul, musicians drop in, sometimes complete blind dates. We did everything live. The drummer gigs with Kevin Morby. The bass player, out of some jazz scene. Piano player, an honorary Bad Seed. A mish mash of personalities and styles. Turns out you can make a lot of noise with acoustic instruments, if there are enough of them.” That sounds like folk music which in many ways is exactly what you get on The Land That Time Forgot, but not the traditional style per say. It is done Prophet-style. A little Brill Building here (“Best Shirt On”), a little country flavor there, some jazzy touches, and some pure ‘60s shimmy-shimmy-shake R&R (“Marathon”), it all plays into Prophet’s anything-goes approach.
As opinionated as they come, Prophet on The Land That Time Forgot also brings in characters aplenty from Richard Nixon (“Nixonland”) to the New York Dolls (“High as Johnny Thunders”) to even Willie Wonka (“Willie and Nillie”) and riffs on things from his present political views (“Love Doesn’t Come From the Barrel of a Gun”) to women ruling the world (“Womankind”). Never a dull moment and with grooves to spares, Chuck Prophet on The Land That Time Forgot delivers the goods once more. Recommended. Visit www.yeproc.com.
Whereas live music in the clubs and outdoors remains almost entirely on hold, there does continue to be a steady flow of streaming options via platforms such as Facebook (via Facebook Live), Youtube, and Instagram. Some venues offering live streaming performances on Facebook that are worth checking out include The Parlor Room, Americana Highways, Outpost in the Burbs, Rounder Records (via their YouTube channel with a new show posted every Saturday afternoon). Locally, our own Mark Cutler hits the Facebook Live stage every Wednesday evening with a show from his home at 7 pm. In addition, the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River is also presenting a weekly live stream performance every Friday evening at 8 pm, while Pump House Music Works in Peace Dale has begun live shows on its front green. Check the Facebook page for upcoming events.
Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.