Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – [Album]

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit have returned with Here We Rest, a southern-soul album recorded in their northern Alabama home of Muscle Shoals. It's an odd coincidence that Isbell's former band, Drive-By Truckers, has just released a new album (Go-Go Boots) focused on exploring the softer side of their sound. For the Truckers, this is likely a one-record deal, but Isbell seems to be moving in this softer direction permanently. Here We Rest’s sourthern-soul focus is far removed from the gritty, often boozy, Crazy Horse sound that characterized his output with Drive-By Truckers. Evidence of this grittier sound remained on 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch (it was produced by Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers and featured Truckers bassist and Isbell's ex-wife Shonna Tucker on bass), and it even permeated 2009’s self-titled release with The 400 Unit; tracks like "Cigarettes and Wine" or "Good" could easily have made a Truckers record. On Here We Rest however, Isbell is permanently removed from this sound and is focused on one that is much cleaner, slicker and, sadly, more generic.

I must acknowledge that I was eagerly awaiting this release, after thoroughly enjoying the singer's self-titled album with The 400 Unit. It was enough of a departure from the Truckers' sound to prove that he wasn’t a one-trick pony and that he was redefining himself with a new sound was respectable. On Here We Rest though, Isbell has taken one step further away from that sound and it is one step too far. The first problem is that The 400 Unit are almost too tight; to the point that it almost feels as though the album was done with session musicians. I’ll admit to a pre-disposition toward looser sounding bands and, to be fair, The 400 Unit's playing is remarkable here but it also ultimately emphasizes the real issue, which is the generic quality of the material. "Heart on a String" is the worst example, sounding basically like the band that plays at my local bar on a Saturday night. They're good and sometimes I dance with my girlfriend after a few too many, but this is not what I expect from a songwriter capable of "Goddamn Lonely Love" or "Never Gonna Change.” The stark production only further enhances the long-winded and generic nature of songs like "Stopping By,” "We've Met" or "Never Could Believe.”  All this is not to say that there aren't moments worth mentioning – "Alabama Pines," "Go It Alone," "Codeine" and "Tour of Duty" are clearly memorable – but the problem is that Isbell proved he could put out an album's worth of memorable songs on his last record. Based on his solo debut and Here We Rest, one has to question whether he is capable of delivering consistent albums or whether he might have been better suited to contributing his three or four best songs to a Drive-By Truckers record. There is enough solid material on Here We Rest to make Isbell an artist worth continuing to watch, but hopefully he is done with this southern-soul direction and returns to the gritty and heartbreaking output of his back catalogue.


Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – "Codeine" – Here We Rest


Here We Rest
comes out on April 12, 2011 via Lightning Rod Recordings in the US and Sony Music in Canada. Pre-order it here (for US) or here (for Canada) on Amazon, depending upon your region.

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