Before a show I make a point to tell myself I won’t be writing about it, usually in a (sometimes vain) attempt to quiet the part of the brain that forms sentences instead of shutting up and experiencing things. It actually worked this time, but I felt compelled to write about seeing Jason Isbell at The National last Thursday anyways. In my best of 2013 post I classified last year’s Southeastern as an album I had yet to listen to much but suspected I would like it if I ever got around to it. To be honest, I had listened to it a few times, but always in a distracted state of mind, and that’s really no way to appreciate that record. It also helps that my appreciation of folk/country and singer-songwriter type material has increased in leaps in bounds lately (surely due in no small part to the numerous singer-songwriters I’ve befriended in recent years). After finally digging in, I found a richly crafted bunch of songs which expertly navigate the balance between imaginative story-telling and heart wrenching personal narrative.
Great songs find a way to make the specific sound universal, and that’s something Isbell handily accomplishes here. “Live Oak” might be my favorite example, starting evocatively with an a capella run through of the chorus, “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”. The song is the story of a man running from his past, unsure if the love he’s found is predicated on the man who lived his previous lives. Running parallel to that interpretation is the knowledge that Southeastern is Isbell’s first record since becoming sober and getting married, and yet, even with two concrete interpretations, when he delivers that chorus there’s a universality to the currents of doubt and regret that underpin the song.
Then seeing it live, hearing a hundred or so extra voices join that chorus, there’s another layer added to the song, seeing the personal element reflected in the rest of the crowd, reflected back to the guy on stage with a guitar, singing at us. Which kind of gets to one of my favorite parts of the show, the countless minor unspoken communications between Isbell and his band and the crowd. After any particularly gregarious bout of cheering, we would be met with a silently mouthed “thank you”. Guitar solos were interspersed with a quick glance to the crowd, eyes seemingly closed, then a glance to the rhythm section to make sure they were still having fun (they were) then down to the guitar to unleash so more theatrics (and let me just note my appreciation that not only is Isbell that rare singer-songwriter with lead guitar chops, his playing is also imaginative and uniquely him; see: that “Danko/Manuel” slide solo, damn). There was also the mid-verse, in between line look away from the microphone with a squinched face that seemed to say “ooohh, that’s a good line I wrote!”.
But far and away my favorite moment of the show came early on, during a rendition of the Drive-By Truckers showstopper, “Decoration Day”. Once the lyrics ended the band seemed to be letting the song come to a close, a final power chord drifting into the rafters as the cymbal crashing crescendo fizzled into a careful splash. Isbell, who had drifted to the drum riser, with his back to the audience turned to look over his shoulder and, though maybe not intentionally, gave a look to the crowd. Anyone familiar with the song knew what was going to happen next; huge drum fill, screaming guitars, all hell breaking loose into a twin-guitar carnage coda. I’m sure there were more than a few people in the audience who weren’t prepared for it though, and Isbell’s look was almost like a wink to all those in the know: “yes, shit is indeed about to happen, and those people have no idea”.
Which of course it did, as his lead guitarist broke into a rather devastating solo. Which I expected, and even though I admit I probably imagined all this and really he was just stretching a crick in his neck, it still made the whole spectacle that much more satisfying knowing (or imagining) that kind of communication can happen in a room so large. Great performers know how to simultaneously make you feel like you’re having an individual conversation with them while being a part of a larger whole, experiencing something together, and that’s exactly what Jason Isbell brought that night.
Obsessively Detailed is a new column where I go at length about the trivially minute details that make me unreasonably excited while listening.
I’m writing about the song “Black Light” from J Roddy Walston & the Business’ Essential Tremors (who, by the way, I also mentioned in the previous Quick Hits). But more specifically, I’m talking about a single sound. The first thing you hear in the track. The song itself is a sultry, T. Rex groove with a falsetto vocal pitched somewhere between preening glam and a Prince come-on. The vocals carry the song, but it’s anchored by the plodding kick drum. You can hear the sound die at the spot, no reverberation, no echo. Just a dry kick, like someone walked in and played a drum set that’s been sitting in a cave for the past 100 years, you can hear the dust being disturbed, the sound hits the walls but instead of bouncing off it gets eaten up. It’s like dropping a watermelon on a 12 inch-thick slab of mozzarella cheese, like throwing a baseball against a wall of melted silly putty. No bounce, no transfer of momentum, just a collision, a sound, and a cessation of all motion. It’s a small detail, sure, but it’s a treat.
Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.
Sleepwalkers – “Off on the Weekend”
I’ve seen Sleepwalkers four times this year without even trying. They emerged from some shadowy bend in the James River, wielding psych-funk jams and making shameless dalliances with 80’s pop in the various back alleys of the city. Their early shows opening up for local heavyweights like Black Girls and Avers typically started with a shellacking of heavy groove riffage found in songs like “Prey and Pressure” (which I happened to take a look at a while back as well). Then things got kinda weird. I was pretty sure they were covering a Flock of Seagulls song with some consistency and I was a bit lost. Maybe even taken aback at first. Which might not be fair, but I’ve no shame in my lack of affinity for popular 80’s music not made by Prince. Now, after a long wait, their most excellent debut album is here, and against all odds the mash of styles kind of makes sense. That pseudo-Flock of Seagulls track turned out to be their very own “Run Right Back”, which is unmistakably a lost 80’s pop-rock hit, but is executed so well it doesn’t even matter. “Off on the Weekend” is my favorite of the pop leaning tracks on the album. The guitar figure’s so lazy it can’t help but linger deceptively behind the beat, the drums shuffle with an alarming lack of urgency, and the bass line snaps things together with the kind of ambling precision that underpins any great laid-back soul-pop number. And then that pre-chorus. That chorus. That post-chorus! When you’ve got hooks and chops like these you can afford a dip this deep into the cheese bowl.
Spoon – “Do You”
It’s recently come to my attention that large parts of the world, and the online music-community especially (as manufactured and downright silly as that community is, me included), don’t see eye to eye on my estimation that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Spoon’s undeniable masterwork. That people out there really do prefer Gimme Fiction or Girls Can Tell. Which is fine, I just assumed we were all in agreement for some reason. Spoon have been masters of their sound since their second album, wrangling together groove-heavy (but, by design, never funky) beats, percussive guitar playing, the occasional squealing noise freak out, atypical piano and synthesizer utilization, and a voice that can crack into a rugged shout without ever sounding like it’s trying very hard. To me, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was the album where the mastery of their sound was finally paired with a mastery of their songwriting style. 2010’s Transference was a fine album, but it also seemed like a retreat to the comforts of their sound. Their latest, They Want My Soul, feels more like the true predecessor. It’s all unmistakably Spoon, just with a sharper set of songs, and “Do You” might be the finest among them. As mentioned, Britt Daniel’s voice has a fascinating ability to reach a throaty howl without ever sounding like he’s trying to hard. Likewise, his songwriting has a knack for wringing pathos without ever going heavy handed. “Do You” is breezy pop-rock (it’s hard not to describe something as ‘breezy’ when it kicks off with a series of “doo-doo-doo-doo’s”) in the best possible way. If I cared about such things as a “Song of the Summer”, this would be my personal front-runner, and not just because one verse starts with the line “Someone get popsicles/someone do something ’bout this heat!”.
Manatree/Herro Sugar – “Animal Quietlies”
Herro Sugar were one of the first bands I saw when I moved to Richmond. Opening up for Black Girls (I’m sensing a pattern for these bands), they weren’t even old enough to enter the venue as audience members, but their songwriting chops and instrumental chemistry were obvious. Only a couple of years later, and with a name-change in hand, they’re prepping the release of a proper debut after a successful Kickstarter and a heck of a lot of support from veterans of the scene (their album was co-produced by members of Avers and The Trillions (whom I’ve somehow yet to cover here, but that will be rectified soon enough as they’ve got a new album on the way as well)). “Animal Quietlies” along with “Something” mark the first new music from these guys and it’s an impressive leap forward. The guitar interplay is especially impressive, cycling through riffs and intertwining leads. The track starts with a cloying, trebly guitar figure, occasionally bolstered by some distorted reinforcements. Elsewhere, the fuzz gets turned up, arpeggios spiral in from the sky, and tempo shifts bludgeon you into submission. There’s a palpable chemistry in the instrumentation that shows how long they’ve been playing together. It’s one thing to be able to stack layer after layer onto a track, it’s quite another to have multiple playing and writing styles mesh together to such a cohesive whole. The singing is borderline deadpan, but deftly manages that fine line between weary pathos and boredom/lack of confidence, always finding itself on the winning side. Considering the two tracks on display here aren’t even professionally mastered yet (in the audio sense, that is), and that this band is putting out songs of this quality so early in their career, it’s hard not to get a little overly excited about what’s to come.
J Roddy Walston & the Business – “Take It As It Comes”
OK, so this song isn’t new, but the video is (kind of, new enough at least), so I think that’s excuse enough to write about it. It also happens to be a song from my favorite album of the past 12 months (I wrote about Essential Tremors in my 2013 Top-Ten post, and it’s since taken over number 1) and my most played album in the time by what I estimate to be a very healthy margin. This track is among my favorite from the record (top 8 at least, which is high praise, even considering there’s only 11 songs) and the video more than does it justice. A steady groove accented by some reggae-like snare hits start things off with an infectious bounce before Ziggy Stardust harmonies line the pre-chorus while boogie piano and bluesy guitar licks lurk behind what might be J Roddy’s best vocal performance on record yet. His voice goes from soulful croon to out-and-out wailing with incredible ease. It’s also worth noting that it’s worth the price of admission to a live show just to see him bounce in his piano bench singing this song. What I like most about the video though is the focus on the lyrics. At first blush they sound straight forward (“You gotta take it as it comes” isn’t an overly complicated sentiment after all) but on deeper inspection (and the help of not having to decipher his howl) there’s a healthy dose of absurdity and darkness lurking under the surface (not to mention a knack for unique imagery that most songwriters in rock bands never even approach). Families claimed, money made, guns loaded, it’s probably best you figure it out for yourself. It’s been a pleasure watching this band’s stock steadily rise this year, and though I likely won’t get to see them in punk clubs like Strange Matter again, I can’t say I’m surprised with songs this good. “Your eyes say there was a choice but/Mouths move for destiny”.