- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 10 May 2011
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit "Here We Rest" Lightning Rod Records
Jason Isbell is one of my favorite songwriters working. I saw a documentary recently about the "outlaw country" music movement in the mid-'70's wherein they described a 20-year-old Steve Earle as some sort of lyrical genius for his age (my words). Isbell rose to prominence as a member of the Drive-By Truckers when he wasn't much older, and he's consistently written songs beyond the normal scope of his age since and probably did before that. The war is obviously on his mind in a major way whereas most of us go about our daily lives without thinking about it nearly as much as we did when it was fresh. I'm in that camp, I'm sorry to say. I think it's a matter of mental self preservation. I couldn't get by if I immersed myself in it for too long. Isbell has written about it on all of his releases for years. And always from the perspective of a soldier or somebody that was affected by knowing or loving one. He's a cerebral artist, and I'm curious to get his take on today's killing of Osama bin Laden. Isbell's a frequent status updater on The Facebook, but he's been strangely silent this evening. I think he's in Germany, and I don't know what time it is there. It's 11:30pm in San Francisco, and I personally don't feel much safer than I did at noon. There's a song in there for Isbell. I've wandered. I suppose this day is historical so I'll ask you to forgive me. I look to artists to help me get a handle on my thoughts and feelings at times like these. That's one of the reasons I need folks like Isbell. The other, and more common reason, is I love to be entertained and he's a good one for that too. His newest is called "Here We Rest," and it's a bit of a departure in some ways from his previous offerings. And in some ways, it's classic Isbell. It grows on you like kudzu. It's a creeper, and I can't wait to let it run its course.
The first thing you might notice about "Here We Rest" is that there's a distinct lack of guitar heroics on it. Many of the songs are acoustic. Even the electric ones like "Go It Alone" are somewhat restrained. "Codeine" was the first tune that jumped off the table at me. It's quiet, but catchy. And hilarious. It's the most immediately recognizable tune on the record after the first spin. The rest took a second to grab me, but they did. They just did it with a little lighter touch than I'm used to. "Heart On A String" is a fun one with some sly Alabama soul flavoring. The Fender Rhodes helps with that. And it contains a pretty smoking electric guitar solo that could be Isbell's or it could be Browan Lollar's. They're both extremely capable, and the fact that they could each rip your face off your head with a solo doesn't mean that they do it every chance they get... or ever on "Here We Rest." Restraint is the order of the day here. Even the soldier song, "Tour Of Duty," is confusingly cheery as far as the music goes while the lyrics are as wrenching as the subject requires they be. The whole album is a quick study, and it feels perfect just as it is. Isbell included a bonus 7" with an original on Side A and a Guided By Voices cover on the flip side which I think is genius. Because the GBV cover would have felt completely out of place on "Here We Rest" somehow although it's quiet and acoustic too. The original is not quiet and acoustic at all. The 7" gives you a little extra time in the sun with some new material without disrupting the continuity of the LP. This guy's a veteran by now and he seemed to know what he was doing from the beginning anyway. I wouldn't bet against him going forward and I'm looking forward to catching a show in support of this one.
This one's a must have for Isbell fans, and if you're one of those, you want the vinyl package. The record isn't visually stellar, but it's quiet. The sparse production lends itself to the format as the instrumental separation is especially noticeable on the quieter material and the electric tones sound really earthy on wax. Combine those facts with the extras like the gatefold with printed lyrics, the 7", and the download coupon, and you've got yourself a winner. It's an impressive Indy release and leaves you wanting more through its brevity. I suspect, and hope, that we'll be getting plenty over the next few years. Isbell's talent is immense and he's got a lot of road ahead of him if things work out the way they're supposed to. A quick look at the characters in his songs will tell you the script is a living document and constantly in flux. He has a way of making you feel thankful for being spared the ravages of our times. Unless you haven't been. Then, he gives you a voice. We need folks like that. We always have, I suspect we will for a while longer. The faces we assign to our threats don't necessarily take those threats with them when they go. I, personally, appreciate the help sifting through the wreckage. Folks are celebrating outside my window at midnight right now. I have no intention of joining them. I wonder how Isbell feels...
TV On The Radio "Nine Types Of Light" Interscope Records
The problem with being in a band like TV On The Radio, other than breaking your arm patting yourself on the back for being a player in one of this era's truly great bands, is living up to your own work. I know that's a questionable way of seeing things, but I think there's merit in it provided certain circumstances. 2008's "Dear Science" was my favorite that year. For me, it's up there in the pantheon of Rock/Soul/Funk greats. It challenges some of Prince's greater works, speaking of living up to your own legacy. And it was an immediate experience. I knew it was monumental half-way through the first song. That's not quite true of "Nine Types Of Light." Not for me, it's not. It's entirely possible that the masses will feel the opposite about it. Given my track record, it might actually be likely. I remember seeing a commercial for the first season of "American Idol" and thinking it would get cancelled after the first pilot aired. I said it aloud to my girlfriend at the time. Now, look at us. So, the very things that I think made "Dear Science" great might have been too much for most listeners. Maybe the layers and intricacies were more easily appreciated by musicians or hardcore aficionados. Maybe the fact that "Nine Types" is less dense will make it more accessible to casual listeners. And I hope that's true because I want this band to succeed in ways that they haven't yet. The world would be a better place if TV On The Radio were given more airplay. I could prove that in the court of law given enough time to prepare my argument. And "Nine Types Of Light" might be the best place to start.
If "Dear Science" felt like a high speed sprint through a mine field wherein a lack of present moment awareness might prove lethal, then "Nine Types" is more of a fun run in the park on a sunnier day. You'd still wanna leave the kids at home though. This is music fit for conversation at the adults' table. This ain't what the kids are talking about. Not yet. (I'd like to acknowledge that I may be talking through my rear here. For all I know, "Nine Types" is number one on the pop charts and all the middle schoolers are besieging their parents with t-shirt requests. I doubt it. But I bet it's burning up the college radio charts if that chart's still around. Whatever it is. Or was.) And I didn't mean to suggest that "Nine Types" is without its layers either. It's not as dense as previous works, but it's hardly two guitars, bass, and drums. A quick look at the members' individual contributions shows every one of them as multi-instrumentalists, and the instrumentation includes synths, flutes, violas, clarinets, samples, and programming in addition to the stand-bys. David Sitek is still doing his thing, in other words, as musician and producer. I'm just saying that I remembered every song on "Dear Science" straight through after first listen. That's the immediacy I referenced. "Nine Types Of Light" is full of killer, groovy tunes. They just didn't stick to my face like "Alien" on first spin. I still can't hum them without prompting. I will though. I'm certainly not giving up. There's no need for any panic. This band's future is bright from a musical standpoint if they decide to stick it out. (Unfortunately, their bassist, Gerard Smith, just passed away from lung cancer. Something tells me the loss would be felt more profoundly within this band than most others. I may be blowing smoke again, but I don't see how a group of players could make music that seems so important and innovative without being closer than your average band. My heart goes out to them.) Another difference between "Nine Types" and previous works is a distinct lessening of political pontificating. For me, most of that was felt on "Dear Science" more than comprehended. I don't usually study lyrics, and that would be difficult on a TVOTR record anyway. There's just too much to pay attention to. But I'm not getting that here. Hopefully, it's not something that I just missed entirely. "No Future Shock" seems to address the world's end, but mostly I'm feeling love songs. It's a fine summer record, and I fully expect the experience to deepen with time. It's gonna age well, I feel certain. And I can't wait.
I'm guessing there's going to be a "Deluxe Vinyl Version" of "Nine Types Of Light" at some point and that I'm going to have to buy it again. In fact, the band's site shows a 180-gram gatefold version for sale now. I think that's a misprint. Mine is 180-gram, but it's housed in a flimsy single sleeve with no liners worth mentioning. This was not the case on their last release which included lyrics, liners, gatefold sleeve, and CD. "Nine Types" came with a download coupon that didn't work too smoothly. I contacted the company three times before completing the transaction. I'm sure they think I wasn't set up for it correctly, but I would dispute that. Some songs downloaded twice, and some not at all. That doesn't sound like a problem with my "cookies" to me. I can't build a computer, but I'm not Cro-Magnon Man either. The pressing isn't gorgeous, but it's pretty quiet. I'd recommend the vinyl version even with its austere presentation and lack of extras. It's the vinyl version of TV On The Radio's latest release, after all. I like it a lot. And I'm already looking forward to the next one. Almost as much as I'm looking forward to next Tuesday night's show. I hear their live shows are legendarily unbelievable. More than one person has told me they put on the best show they've seen. We'll see how it goes...
Daniel Glen Timms "Life's An Illusion" Blue Earth Records
I'd not heard of Daniel Glen Timms until he contacted Secrets to see if we'd like to give his new record a listen. I was a little uneasy at the prospect at first. What if the record sucked? What would I do? Would I just opt to not review it in order to avoid throwing some bad press on a truly independent artist trying to get his vision out there? Would I just go ahead and give it the sorry review it deserved as a matter of journalistic integrity? Thankfully, this is not an issue. The record is called "Life's An Illusion," and it's good. Not "change your life" great, but very accomplished and tasteful. There's a market for this music, Timms may just have to dig for it. Or wait for it to dig him. He strikes me as the type of artist that can play in any style he wants. If he were trying to sell a million records, he'd probably have chosen a different style. Timms and I are both stranded on Old Fashioned Rock and Roll Island. There's plenty of leg room, I assure you. We are of a dying breed, and our influences were already old when we were young. Now, they seem positively pre-historic. Trends will come and go. The vocoder will eventually date itself and people will listen to the million or so records that use it now and it will seem like Peter Frampton's talk box. Or Joe Perry's talk box. A novelty, basically. But true musicianship and artists with integrity will be around until the species wears out its welcome on this rock. Daniel Glen Timms sounds like one of those. His heart is in the right place.
"Life's An Illusion" reveals itself in the tradition of a live concert. At least on side one. That is to say, it starts out strong with a Chuck Berry influenced rocker called "Thirty Thousand Days," and builds from there. Right away, Timms' guitar work is front and center, and the sound is so familiar you feel like you knew the guy in high school or something. Rather, you knew of him in high school. No one really knew him because he spent all his time by himself practicing. "Thirty Thousand Days" has a barrelhouse piano part which is especially impressive considering Timms is the only keyboardist credited in the liners. (If we're gonna stick with the high school analogy, it's safe to assume that Timms was the most talented guy in your class. You'd have assumed you'd be telling your kids that he sat behind you in chemistry class, and that any science fair project he submitted related to music somehow. A guitar amp that generated its own power, perhaps.) And Timms hasn't even cut loose on his vocals at that point. If we're shifting back to the live show analogy, you'd know you don't show your hand in the first few songs. (I bet Frampton never got the talk box out until the latter half of the show. Maybe he even waited until the encore when the mullets were really flying.) Timms' voice isn't gonna win him any Grammys on its own, but he hits his spots without fail, and he harmonizes with himself as if he were his own musical brother. By the time he closes the "first set" with "Do It Right," he's shown you pretty much all the tricks he's revealing on this tour. When he starts wailing, he sounds a little like Boz Scaggs before Scaggs traded his Muscle Shoals rhythm section in for a bunch of silk suits and hair gel. Side two is a little slower, and includes a cool little acoustic guitar instrumental ("My Dogs") before picking things up for a big (enough) title track ending. It's a pretty quick listen, and one you could start over at once without feeling like you've cheated yourself out of anything more important. These songs stick with you quickly so long as you're not hell bent for vocoders.
The vinyl version of "Life's An Illusion" is pretty slick too. It's a single heavy record in a gatefold sleeve complete with big artwork and lyrics along with player credits and the obligatory acknowledgements of family, friends, and Fender, and Gibson, and Donner and Blitzen (I made the last two up). The pressing is not visually perfect, but I checked my input source on my receiver when I dropped the needle to make sure it was on the phono channel. There was absolutely no noise on the lead-in to give it away, and that's consistent with the rest of the record as well. If I were Daniel Glen Timms, I'd be proud of myself. He got his vision out there, and he handled the heavy lifting to do it as producer, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he took the pictures of himself that adorn the inner gatefold. Maybe he taught himself how to do that in the back of the class while you were studying the periodic table or writing love notes.
Robbie Robertson "How To Become Clairvoyant" Label: 429 Records
I got pumped when I learned that Robbie Robertson finally had a new studio release out. I didn't even know he'd put his last one out in '98. I thought it had been even longer, and the last one I bought was from 1991. This is one of my favorite songwriters of all time, even if his status as songwriter for The Band is in dispute. Levon Helm suggests those songs were co-written and that Robertson was the only Band member who was business savvy enough to claim exclusive credit. That would be one hell of a crime to perpetrate. One thick trick to pull on the adoring public and Robertson's road warrior brethren. Those songs are woven into the fabric of this country in a very real way for a lot of us even if they were written by a Canadian neighbor... or neighbors. In fact, seeing The Band perform "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" live is one of my earliest memories of MTV. I was a small child in Tennessee hanging out at the baby sitter's after school in second grade when they aired the clip from "The Last Waltz." I was hooked, but I kept it to myself. I couldn't believe there was a group called The Band, for one thing. I figured I'd seen things wrong so I put it under my pillow for a while. That memory is clear as the reflection in Robertson's gold Strat, and I knew I'd gotten it right by the time I rediscovered The Band in late middle school. I stole their greatest hits collection from Turtle's Records, I believe, and the game was afoot. (I call "statute of limitations" on this one, and would like to assure everyone that I never took anything from an independent retailer, even then. I'm serious about that.) And, after hearing Helm's last record (wicked good), and more newbie's from others of the era (Dylan's been on quite a roll, right?), I felt like Robertson was due. I thought for sure he'd go back to the root of the tree and flower some organic musical fruit to nourish us all at least once more. I'm glad I'm no gambler. It pains me to report on "How To Become Clairvoyant." (I'm serious about that too.)
The Band's status in the canon of rock music is an interesting thing in and of itself. They only had two really great studio records for my money. (I pay for things, now.) Those would be the first two and, if you don't know what I'm talking about, I'd say you should get on the stick. We're not going into it here. There are a couple of great live sets too, and The Band's history backing Dylan should have gotten them into the Hall of Fame on its own. But their other studio albums were a little too clean even by '70's standards. By the time "The Last Waltz" danced through Winterland on Thanksgiving 1978 things were shot. It's evident in the film when the members play clips from their latest studio projects for the cameras. (Rick Danko, I'm looking at you.) Robertson was already Martin Scorsese's go-to guy for film scores and was collaborating with the likes of Neil Diamond, for crying out loud. Shot, I tell you. And that proclivity for sterility seems to have grabbed Robertson with a grip that would strangle the life out of anything. And, apparently, it still has him. I'm struggling to keep my head above the line of decency here. It's so tempting to succumb to the juvenile fun of simply making fun of "Clairvoyant," and finding clever ways of slaughtering it. It would be easier than finding a high road, trust me. It's a collaboration with Clapton, and that guy refuses to rock now as well. It's almost like he thinks it's not age appropriate. You put the two together and you get... this. And this hurts. I'm talking about sophomoric couplets that are so simplistic ("Straight Down The Line") that you'd have to be Dr. John to pull them off. And there's a reason Robertson never sang lead for The Band. Or never sang at all. He can hope for "moody" or "interesting," at best. This record is the opposite of interesting. HIs historic references, (the roll call of fallen guitar greats in "Axman," for instance) are too obvious and simplistic, and it just gets worse from there. The writing is so bad that it actually gives credence to Helm's assertion. Basically, this is mediocrity at its most blatant, and that's what hurts the most. I'd rather hear a record that makes me feel glum. This one makes me feel anger. Seriously. Anger. Anger at the fact that one of my idols has settled for... this. I'm not even gonna get into the production's shimmer and slickness. It hurts too much. I'm getting out before I get infected with cleanliness. I need to be sanitized from the sanitization.
The vinyl presentation is actually great. Comes in a gatefold. Two heavy, clean records. Download coupon. Whatever. It's all for naught. Levon Helm is laughing his bad ass off right now, I guarantee it. If you're a Robertson fan, and you like where he's landed, get the vinyl version. The sound is so clean though, you might be better off with some sort of fancy digital version if one exists. I'm not even willing to research it. I'm taking this one back ASAP, and then I'm gonna pretend like the whole gross thing never happened. I thought he was due, man. Clearly, I've not become clairvoyant.
Big Star "Third" Omnivore Recordings
Big Star is one of those bands that could have escaped me were it not for a couple of super-hip high school buddies. And Big Star's "Third" is a masterpiece of an album that could have escaped discovery by any of us were it not for the fact that it's so super ridiculously fantastic that it just had to be heard eventually no matter what. Initially deemed not commercial enough for release, it finally saw the light of day in 1978 some four years after it was shelved and the band had already split. That's the version of the story I'm most familiar with, anyway. Speaking of versions, there are a few varieties of "Third." It's been called a few different names too, "Sister Lovers" being the most popular after "Third," but we're going with "Third" on this one because that's what's on the box. And I do mean "box." Record Store Day came and went on April 16, 2011, and "Third" was the highlight of the limited releases by far. By Far. I've never gotten out of bed at 6AM to get in line at a record store four hours prior to opening for anything other than concert tickets back when record stores sold concert tickets. But I did it this year. For "Third" and the box it came in. It completes my Big Star collection. And me.
If you're not familiar with Big Star's music, you're wrong. You probably at least know the theme to "That '70's Show," if nothing else. And regardless of all that, every band that you like, providing you like music made by musicians, at least respects Big Star if they don't love them. R.E.M., for instance, loves them. Big Star's brand of power-pop is really the template for power-pop, generally. That can go so many ways, but it all went the way it was supposed to for Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, musically speaking. Those were the two original members that stuck around long enough to unleash "Third." (By then, Chris Bell had flown the coup.) The record is all over the map. The lilting strings and sweetness of "Stroke It Noel" will eventually be obliterated by the force of "Kizza Me." In between, you'll get a beautiful take on the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," and a wacky workout on Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin'." (The latter tune was not on Four Men With Beards' reissue of "Third" from a few years back. And theirs had a song on it that's not included on the Record Store Day version.) "Oh Dana" is another rocker standout, and "Take Care" feels like getting tucked into bed as this version's closer. To say that this version, by Omnivore Recordings, is "better" than Four Men With Beards' is like saying Texas is "bigger" than Rhode Island. It's the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing one. As the box says, it was "cut from the original analog assembly reel, on the same lathe that cut the original test pressing" by the same folks that cut it the first time. And it was all overseen by Jody Stephens, himself. And they only made 2,000. And only half of those were sold in the United States. And I got one of them, but I didn't get one of the five autographed original test pressings that were randomly inserted in some of the boxes. That's alright. I probably wouldn't have gotten up any earlier for one of those anyway. That's a lie, but I'm still stoked to have the one I got. Trust me. My neighbors can corroborate this story.
So, this one's packaged in a box that replicates the original master tape box. In this box, you'll find the 180-gram record with the blank white test pressing label as that was the original "artwork" since "Third" got canned for a minute before release. You also get replicas of the original tracking and lead sheets as well as the mastering card. But the real epiphany is in the sound. The acoustic instruments are so alive they'll shock you. The strings are so real, you'll feel like you should have dressed up for them. And, of course, Alex Chilton's vocals are sugary to the point of rapture... until he gets dirty. And that might be even better depending on your mood. My local independent retailer got five copies of "Third" for Record Store Day and one was gone already before I got mine. One more got snapped up as I was walking away, and the remaining two were nowhere to be found a few minutes after that. For people that think I'm nuts for waiting in line for it, I'd like to invite you over for a listen. Then, you can offer me whatever amount of money you have for it, and I can refuse to sell it to you. I paid somewhere around $35 for mine. It sold for $172.50 on EBay the next day. $250 a couple of days later. Do what you can to get one while they're around. You won't feel nearly as crazy for having done so as you think you might now. And you can sleep in. Just say you're paying a premium for that.