Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Self-Titled Debut & Here We Rest
Two Genre Defying and Groundbreaking Americana Albums.
JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT (2009)
A helluva lot has happened to Jason Isbell’s career since the release of his (and the 400 Unit’s) self-titled album in 2009.
Today he is certainly an A-Lister in not just the Americana and Alt. Country Camp, but has been accepted graciously and successfully into the mainstream Country World too …….. with his last album being recorded Live at the Ryman and another 7 night run at the same venue starting on Friday 18th October to coincide with the re-release of his/their first two albums.
As what I think of as a dyed in the wool fan; it behoves me to say I’d never heard the self-titled 2009 album before this week (and I’ve still never even seen a copy of its predecessor SIRENS IN THE DITCH) . In my defence; after leaving Drive-By Truckers in 2007, and the internet still in its infancy Isbell was only a bit player on the scene at that time and the album hardly made a dent in the UK Scene at the time.
So; it’s been really, really exciting to see how the incomparable sound they create today has evolved.
The intro to first track Seven Mile Island is a bit of a mish-mash; and even when Isbell’s (now) distinctive voice kicks in the spin-dryer drumbeat is still on overload, and alongside some quirky guitar (lead and steel) almost drowns out what just might be a very thoughtful song.
Not a great start; and if I’d been given this album to review 10 years ago …….. I may not have got as far as track #2!
But had I continued, Sunstroke would certainly have caught my attention; a dark and brooding pot-boiler that, with hindsight signals the start of the upward spiral the songwriter and associated band members were to go on.
I can’t imagine how listeners felt ten years ago; but this song sent a definite shiver down my back.
For the next song the guitars, piano and amps are cranked up to 11 and the band set fire to the listeners senses on Good. It’s loud; and so intense I can’t think of anyone else round about that time who were creating music like this song ……. making it quite groundbreaking; if I’m not mistaken.
Although this is the forerunner to what we have come to expect from Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit; these songs from start to finish have certainly stood the test of time; with (new songs to me) The Blue, Streetlights and When My Baby’s Beside Me all sounding as imaginative and still as fresh as a daisy 10 full years after they were recorded.
Plus there are a couple of songs which must have been quite mind bending back then; Soldiers Get Strange must have been a very brave and even dangerous song to write; and especially play live.
As I’ve never had the opportunity to see this band play live, I can’t think why I recognised Cigarettes and Wine; but I do and I think it will go on to feature prominently on any future Best Of/Retrospective they will release, as it sounds (again with hindsight) one of those ‘definitive songs’ that a band has.
As much as I like that, one other song here is genuinely outstanding, and is the template for some of Isbell’s future leftfield love songs; the type others have tried to emulate but failed miserably.
This Is The Last Song I Will Write is almost mind-expanding in the way Isbell sort of combines Hank’s observational writing style with Pink Floyd or is it Who At Last style psychedelia to create a song that is the benchmark for a lot of the music I have received in the last ten years and therefore my Favourite Track here.
As Jason Isbell’s name is at the forefront I keep using ‘him’ to describe; what’s happening; but trust me that this album; and everything else they have released is very much a band effort, with everyone involved combining to create this unique ‘sound.’
HERE WE REST (2011)
This is where I came in, reviewing this for Maverick Magazine; and even though it didn’t make a dent in the UK Charts at the time; the seeds were certainly sown for what was to follow.
The majestic Alabama Pines opens the disc in a way I’d not ever heard before …….. was this Country Rock? Not really; and Alt. Country was more or less just a handful of solo singer-songwriters at the time; so hearing a fully fledged band sound like this was like hearing the Beatles or Byrds for the first time.
Now, listening to both albums in chronological order It’s fair to say that the 400 Unit (and Jason Isbell) had been working really hard in the interim years to create ‘their sound’ with very few nods in any direction for direct influences (others may argue that pint; but they are wrong.)
With not hearing these songs in quite a few years; re-discovering We’ve Met and Heart on a String has been a real joy to behold; and I can distinctly remember playing Save It For Sunday on auto-repeat one night as I tried to unravel the ‘meaning of life’ contained therein.
Two songs contained here have gone on to become ‘definitive’ Jason Isbell songs and still occasionally feature on the finer Internet Radio stations (Somewhere there must be an Americana Gold radio station!) and who that hat has ever heard Codeine and/or Tour of Duty hasn’t been touched in one way or another.
Oh man; how heartbreaking is Codeine? I vaguely remember hearing this way back in ’11 and thinking I’d never heard such an obviously Country Song like it ever before; perhaps I still haven’t.
It was a similar feeling with Tour of Duty; which was and still is a million miles away from the Gung-ho ‘I love the flag’ songs that were filling the Country airwaves at the time; this was a very contemporary story and song that owed a debt to the Greenwich Village troubadours of the 60’s than it ever did Music Row.
I can still understand why I got so excited back in 2011; and most of the songs here have stood up to the tests of time; although I doubt The Ballad of Nobeard will ever get dusted off when they play the Ryman; but Daisy Mae and the twisted love song We’ve Met just might.
I’ve forced myself not to re-visit my original review to see what I selected as a Favourite Track; primarily because I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Heart on a String; which just may be one of Jason Isbell (and the 400 Unit’s) finest ever songs. Damn it ….. ‘might be’……. of course it is!
This has been a fabulous exercise for me; actually hearing the Self-Titled album for the first time and hearing one of the 21st Century’s most innovative and gifted Country/Roots/Americana bands coming together to create what has become a distinctive and definitive sound; that was and still is unlike any other out there.
Released October 18th 2019