It seems like you wait a while for an album to be released from one of the Alt-Country heavyweights. Then before you know it, there's two (three really if you count Chris Stapleton's recently released "From A Room Vol. 1"), with both of them being released on the same day.
It would be hard not to draw parallels between Steve Earle and Jason Isbell. Both have spent most of their lives living their music, working hard at their craft. There's both of their battles with addiction and sobriety, their work definitely being affected by it. Also, both have pretty much built their careers in their own terms rather than following the usual route of how Country music is dictated. I thought about reviewing both album's separately but this is a good opportunity to compare and contrast a pair of great artists.
Let's start with Steve Earle's album "So You Wannabe An Outlaw". It's (thankfully) a return to his more County side after the Blues infused "Terraplane" which kind of left me feeling cold. I'm a long time Earle devotee after seeing the video for the "Copperhead Road" on TV back in the eighties. His style has varied quite a bit over the years, even infusing loops and beats into his music at one point so I was looking forward to this.
The album had grown from a couple of seeds. Earle's debut album, "Guitar Town", turned thirty last year and he's revisited it at some shows recently with his always evolving backing band the Dukes. Also, the passing of country legend Waylon Jennings has affected him, forcing him to look inside himself for that 'spirit' to draw upon.
It opens with the title track, a crunchy Country Blues track which sees him duet with original country legend Willie Nelson. It works well and is a real strong opener. 'Fixin' To Die' kicks things up a notch about a third of the way through the album, with Earle rasping and spitting the lyrics "I'm fixin' to die, reckon I'm going to hell" over a driven guitar part. It could quite easily have fit on some of his more 'Rock' albums. Steve describes it as "Southern Gothic......Waylon Jennings on steroids when it comes to the way I'm playing guitar". This has the potential of being a real live favourite when he tours the album, with a steady drum, reverbed guitars and Eleanor Whitmore's frantic fiddle work.
A couple of songs on the album were written for TV shows. 'If Mama Coulda Seen Me' was written for the first season of Nashville, almost as a throwaway joke that actually sits well with the rest of the album. 'Sunset Highway' was in the final series of Treme, a show he appeared on as well as writing songs for. When you stack it up against 'This City' (found on his album "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive") it falls a little short, which is a shame.
Earle has a tender heart and he has a few moments where he explores this softer side on the album. It's a good job he's pretty damn good at these as in other hands they could be seen as cheap mawkish ballads. 'This Is How It Ends' where he duets with Miranda Lambert. 'The Girl On The Mountain' is a more softer finger picked song that sounds like it was written late into the night. Then there's 'Goodbye Michaelangelo', a sad and moving lament to his friend and mentor Guy Clark that is a touching way to conclude the album if you ignore the four covers that aren't on the standard version. He can write songs that are incredibly moving, songs that speak directly to your soul. This has anyways been one of good strengths, good guitar playing and singing coming straight from his heart.
It's a good album, a one that really grows on you. It has taken me a few listens fit songs to be appreciated which can be a good thing. But, it seems to be lacking something. There's some great songs but the production comes across as muddy. I was expecting something a bit more angrier in places, especially with the current political situation. Perhaps he's missed an opportunity, either that or felt that something more personal is what he needed to release right now.
Jason Isbell has also come through some troubled times. He's a former member of the Alt-Country Rock band The Drive-by Truckers, responsible for writing and singing a couple of their finest sings before being asked to leave for drinking too heavily. After releasing a couple of studio albums with his backing band The 400 Unit (named after a mental health support ward), Isbell got sober with the help of his now wife Amanda Shires (an artist in her own right) and Ryan Adams (things must be bad if Ryan Adams is stepping in to help). He released the fantastic "Southeastern" and "Something More Than Free" to great success and critical acclaim, setting him up as one of the leading light's of the Country music scene.
"The Nashville Sound" sees him working again with the in-demand producer Dave Cobb but this time he has the full 400 Unit in tow. Isbell advised the new album would be more 'Rock' and he delivers a set of ten near classics.
Album opener lures you in, starting off with 'Last Of My Kind'. Jason questions his place in the world over a gentle finger picked acoustic guitar. A cutting guitar riff slashes away at 'Cumberland Gap!, the 400 Unit providing perfect backing as Isbell laments "maybe the Cumberland Gap just shallows you whole". 'Tupelo' brings the pace down a touch before launching into 'White Man's World', Isbell questioning how race and gender still play a part of society and where he stands in the great scheme of things. "I'm a white man living in a white man's nation, I think the man upstairs must'a took a vacation" he sings sadly on the final verse.
'If We Were Vampires' is a genuine heartbreaking song. It's a real thing of beauty, Isbell singing about how intense love can be and how mortality destroys us all. "It's knowing this can't go on forever, it's likely one of us will have to spend some time alone.....but one day I'll be gone or one day you'll be gone". Knowing he's singing with his wife not only plucks at your heart but pretty much tears it away. In fact, stop reading this right now and go and listen to it on Spotify or YouTube. If it doesn't make you want to hold the one's you love tightly then you have a heart of stone my friend.
'Anxiety' is co-written with his wife Amanda, tricking you with a build up and release at the end that doesn't sound like the rest of the song at all. 'Molotov' dances along with a peculiar almost bossa nova drum pattern. 'Chaos and Clothes' features a soothing guitar part with an eerie double tracked vocal that conjures up the spirit of Elliott Smith, the line "let's name all the monsters you've killed" sending shivers down your spine.
Single 'Hope The High Road' sees the band step up a gear, looking at the political landscape around them. It sounds rousing without becoming chest beating. "I've heard enough of the white man's blues, I've sang enough about myself" sings Isbell, poking a little fun at himself. It sounds like it could sat comfortably on his Ryan Adams' album "Gold". It's a good single to lead with and seems a little odd leaving it so far towards the end of the album.
'Something To Love' closes the album, and it sounds a lot more roots Americana. It's a distant cousin to the Isbell penned Drive-by Truckers song 'Outfit', with this time instead of receiving the advice it's Isbell's turn to talk. It gives us a glimpse that things can be better. He tells her "I hope you find something to love something to do when you feel like giving up", giving us all that little taste of hope for when things get dark.
To put both album's up together seem a little unfair. If the releases had been staggered a few months, I would have raved about both. But that's not to be. This time Isbell has put together an incredibly strong raft of songs without weakness, whereas Steve Earle seems to have lost a little of his spark and that's brought his album down a touch. "So You Wannabe An Outlaw" is a grower that benefits repeated listens, as does "The Nashville Sound". Isbell writes, sings and plays with a certain confidence that Earle seems to be lacking at the moment, which is a real shame but it certainly feels like Earle is back on track after a couple of album missteps. But, damn, it's a good time to be a country music fan!
Review - Scott Hamilton