My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Drive-By Truckers

Album Review: Jason Isbell – ‘Something More Than Free’

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560Following up an album as iconic and masterful as Southeastern is not an easy task, even for the smartest of artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Jason Isbell had readied a follow-up record so quickly but nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the artistic behemoth that proceeded it. After all, how does an artist even begin to build upon the impossible foundation set by the greatest songwriting triumph this decade? Well, he just does it all over again.

Something More Than Free cements Isbell’s status as the best singer-songwriter currently orbiting the country universe. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. He’s simply a master among armatures.

Lead single “24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with the chorus:

You thought God was an architect

Now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow
Everything you’ve built that’s all for show goes up in flames

In twenty-four frames

One of the most poignant aspects of Something More Than Free is the reliance on songs about work with an overarching reflection on life as a whole. Album opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” is the greatest rumination on patience I’ve ever heard. “The Life You Chose” is a take-no-prisoners reality check on personal trajectory, asking, ‘are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?’ Isbell’s turns of phrase are impeccable, when the chorus continues by asking, ‘are you taking the grownup dose?

Isbell is at his strongest on the title track, in which he paints a character spending his days enduring hellish extremes who is ‘just lucky to have the work.’ His songwriting genius reveals itself in the sly way he incorporates the lyric’s true meaning, by stating the song’s title only once. That single usage gives the song its powerful twist:

The day will come. I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb and my hands are freezing
but what I’m working for is something more than free

Those who’ve been deeply affected by Andy’s love for his cancer stricken friend in “Elephant” know Isbell is a storyteller in his class of his own. The remarkable “Speed Trap Town” isn’t as by the book, but it finds Isbell embodying the soul of a man as he realizes he needs a quick exit strategy:

And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight,
when there’s no one left to ask if I’m alright
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide

if there’s anything that can’t be left behind

In “Children of Children” Isbell introduces us to Michael, the son of a teenage mother who becomes a teenager with a child of his own. The heartbreaking twist comes when you realize the song is really about a woman’s worth and sacrifice:

You were riding on your mother’s hip

She was shorter than the corn
and all the years you took from her just by being born

Amidst all the grim realities, Isbell throws us a bone with “Flagship,” a sweet love song about one man’s observances and a simple vow to always find a way to keep the romance alive. He gives us a completely different kind of adoration on “The Band I Loved,” which is presumably about The Drive-By-Truckers. Isbell is trying to justify the circumstances when everything went to hell and how he looks back on it all today.

Like Southeastern before it, Something More Than Free is soaked in gritty reality. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His albums, at least these last two, are drenched in rock elements that perfectly compliment his signature gravel and help create the individual mood of each song. Now that he’s strongly framed the house, I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Home’

It was inevitable that Dierks Bentley’s follow-up to 2010’s Up On The Ridge would be a more radio-friendly project; I was slightly fearful that he would offer up a collection of mindless party songs in the vein of “Sideways” in order to get back in the good graces of country radio programmers.  What I didn’t expect was an album that was more mainstream while retaining many of the bluegrass-flavored elements of its predecessor.  This is likely the handiwork of Jon Randall, who produced Up On The Ridge, and who is back on board to share production duties with Luke Wooten and Dierks’ longtime producer Brett Beavers.

The similarities to Up On The Ridge are immediately apparent from the first notes of the opening track “Am I The Only One”, (reviewed by Occasional Hope last April) which reached #1 last September.   It starts off with a prominent banjo track, though the slightly too loud electric guitars take over by the time the song ends.   “Gonna Die Young” takes a similar approach, though this song works less well overall; the production is a little more heavy-handed and there is a slight hip-hop rhythm to the lyrics. “5-1-5-0” and “Heart of a Lonely Girl” both sound as though they could have been recorded during the Up On The Ridge sessions.

One of the album’s highlights is the title track and current single, which was selected as the official song of Dierks’ native Arizona’s Centennial Commission.  Written by Dierks with Brett Beavers and Dan Wilson in response to the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, the song breaks from the rock-grass formula of the album’s first three tracks. It currently resides at #6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. I reviewed the single back in October. Since that time, former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell has accused Bentley of plagiarism, citing similarities between “Home” and his own “In a Razor Town”. Listen here and decide for yourself.

Things take a less serious turn when Dierks advises a friend who is about to get engaged, about the slippery slope he’s embarking on, in “Diamonds Make Babies.” I’d like to see this one become a single, but I’m inclined to think that the generic, play-it-safe “In My Head” will be the next track sent to radio. On the bluesy “When You Gonna Come Around”, Dierks is joined by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. Though their voices blend well together, the tune itself borders on bland. As the least country-sounding track on the album, it too could be a contender for a future single release.

Dierks saves the best for last. The closing track “Thinking of You” is a beautiful acoustic number, which at just over seven minutes is too long. After an extended instrumental break, it fades out after about five and a half minutes, only to fade back in several seconds later with a verse sung by a very young child, presumably Dierks’ daughter. Some will find this precious, but I could have done without it.

Not every track is stellar. “Tip It On Back”, about finding an escape from life’s daily trials and tribulations, and “Breathe You In” are both throwaways, but overall, Bentley succeeds in creating a sound that is contemporary while deeply rooted in country and bluegrass. There is plenty here to appeal to country radio, without alienating longtime fans.

Grade: B+