Number Eight: Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)

Southeastern Records ■ SER 9984
Released June 11, 2013
Produced by Dave Cobb




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cover Me Up
  2. Stockholm
  3. Traveling Alone
  4. Elephant
  5. Flying Over Water
  6. Different Days
  1. Live Oak
  2. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
  3. New South Wales
  4. Super 8
  5. Yvette
  6. Relatively Easy

I suppose it’s a given that I know Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers, but the truth is I got into them via 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which postdates both his final album with the band (2006’s A Blessing and a Curse) and his debut solo record (2007’s Sirens of the Ditch). This put me in the strange and seemingly unenviable position of liking a band in what was considered a reduced state; many felt they’d declined severely after his exit, even with the natural caveats for the remaining members. It made me–as such things do–wary of his solo work, as it doesn’t give the greatest impression of anyone’s fans to often couch that fandom in dismissal of something else.

Still, during a random bit of shopping in 2010, I ran into his second post-DBT album, the one which eponymously named his band the 400 Unit, and fell madly in love (after all, wariness is not cause for dismissal, either!) with it. Since then, of course, he has released, inbetween that and this, 2011’s Here We Rest, still with the 400 Unit, and in post-or-mid-I’m-not-quite-sure start to sobriety. A lot of people prefer that record and this one, as I even found zero songs from that favourite four years ago in the last set I saw him play.
A lot of people called this one out around release as a pretty solid candidate for album of the year (the first I recall being someone I used to work with) and in principle I most definitely cannot disagree. Here We Rest felt a little more scattered to me than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–not weaker, mind you, just less focused. While Southeastern abandons a lot of the rock that drives that self-titled record (not all, though), it stays the course it chooses to perfectly to find any criticism in this.
“Cover Me Up” begins a small chain of breath-taking odes to Isbell’s wife, Amanda Isbell (née Shires), though perhaps the only one explicitly and directly that: it’s Jason accompanied only by himself, albeit multi-tracked. But as it starts, it’s just his lone acoustic, and his voice, with his slide creeping in only at the edges, crisp and lively. It rolls along at a steady pace, his voice low and almost whispered in its intimacy, but reaches for the ceiling at the chorus, and very nearly tears through it.
Should you feel discomfort with that intimacy, it is interrupted at the right moment by the shift to “Stockholm”, which brings a full band into play–not quite the 400 Unit, though it shares with the Unit Chad Gamble on Drums and Derry (ex-Son Volt) DeBorja on keys. Though the instinct, particularly in light of the lyrics, is to expect the mutually musical Amanda to join him, the voice heard alongside him is that of Kim Richey. DeBorja gets his most powerful appearance on the record here, the shuffling thump of Gamble and Brian Allen’s bass anchors it, but it is moved most explicitly by those keys, and, to some extent, the fried, electric riffs of Isbell himself. It’s love as Stockholm Syndrome, but with no intimations of negative association beyond the name itself–it’s the captivity breeding intimacy, but not the sense of forced captivity (though one can’t be certain: then-Shires was the one who ended up sticking him in rehab).
My father–who shares my appreciation, and got the album for Father’s Day from me–has told me that he has heard a fair bit of play on the radio for “Traveling Alone”, and it’s understandable, as it’s something like a balance between the heartfelt, unfiltered emotion of “Cover Me Up” and the power and winking joy of “Stockholm”, and this time it is Amanda alongside him, not only harmonizing but adding her fiddle to the track. In a strange way, it’s just vaguely reminiscent of Whiskeytown’s matching of Caitlin Cary’s fiddle with Isbell’s recent tourmate and friend Ryan Adams’s voice. Amanda’s playing shows that she typically fronts a band on her time, though, having a bit more elbowed jostling to the front in it–not in a bad way, but indicative of the playing that she does.
I don’t pay enough attention to know for certain that it’s seen this way, but I have difficulty imagining there aren’t a fair number of people treating “Elephant” as the centerpiece of the album. It’s another purely solo track (so long as we allow time-traveling clones to count, or however you would count overdubs), and it’s emotionally bare in entirely another fashion–the word doesn’t appear for a number of verses, and even then isn’t used in a way that literally states it, but it’s plain that Jason (as “Andy”) is singing of a dear friend lost to cancer. A writer like Isbell is ideal for addressing this: there’s rumpled reality to both “Andy” and his friend, with her actual character described in the song outside of what is happening to her, and Andy’s description of events conveying it instead. The elephant that’s in the room, though he says they both ignored it, we can hear from his point of view is not being missed at all, with her instead defiantly ignoring it outwardly, even “mak[ing] cancer jokes”. There’s no telling, without trawling interviews, if it is personally real, or some kind of amalgamation of experiences–and it doesn’t matter. It hits exactly as it should, never becoming syrupy, or even overly morose, defining itself with its last variation on the bridge and chorus: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
After the weight of “Elephant”, another electrified track like “Flying Over Water” is very welcome: it’s also back to a full band, though the pounded out intro gives way to loose electric chords, Jason’s voice and quiet taps on the rim from Gamble. Much of the time I am miserable at ascertaining lyrical intention from a songwriter who is not absolutely explicit, but I’m left with the notion that this is about the move (which is explicitly referenced, or damn near it) Isbell made from Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) to Nashville, TN. It’s questioning, concern, worry about a change, a move–and what might be lost in the process, it seems.
Though it begins with hints that it will return to the solo approach, Allen’s bass joins him early, and DeBorja flavours the largely acoustic chord-based “Different Days” with keys. Isbell straddles something like mourning for the life he used to live and an approving embrace of what comes now–mourning may not be the word, as there’s more regret in the days than there is to leaving them.
Side Two opens with perhaps the most haunting track: “Live Oak”. Introduced purely a cappella, I missed a lot of details in the song when I first heard it that clarify that it is not directly autobiographical–a history of murder, robbery, and having a sheriff on his back. Indeed, this is driven home by the muted, chunky, low, burnt chords of a guitar that emulates the kind employed by Ennio Morricone, crossed with the less dramatic version of the same used by the likes of Sun Records-era Johnny Cash. But, though I missed all that, I was not wrong in hearing autobiography, Isbell has admitted–there’s a fear of what he lost of himself in sobriety, hinted at in the track that closed Side One, but here made explicit, in the context of the relationship that inspired “Cover Me Up”–a scary thing indeed.
Sliding back in time, “Songs She Sang in the Shower” is the spiky, hell-raising not-yet-sober kind of Isbell: as described, it oozes with regret and self-doubt, but tempered by the fatalistic, “I deserve this” kind of thinking that tends to perpetuate that. It’s never more clear than after “she” leaves: “In a room by myself, looks like I’m here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else”. And as such things often are, he’s stuck on the most seemingly innocuous of reminders, the songs that she sang in the shower, which “experience tells me that I’ll never hear them again, without thinking of then”.
“New South Wales” brings some much-needed warmth to the album after that string of tracks, with Allen and Gamble acting only as a light anchor behind what largely remains an effectively solo track. While the first two songs on the album are clear in describing love as the finding of home, here it’s just the finding of something that amounts to home, however it’s arrived at, the notion of finding a place that feels safe and warm and, well, home-y.
Finally shifting things into an out-and-out rollicking rock movement, “Super 8” breaks the delicate tension of emotions and sounds that preceded it with the lick of flame that is the wild and “sloppy” slide of a well-done barnstormer. A sense of humour about wild days past and the decision to make them exactly that–past, not wild–the most ridiculous phrasing of it: “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well, if I ever get back to Bristol I’m better off sleeping in the county jail.” A morning that finds him “not quite breathing” that ends momentarily with “looks like that’s all she wrote” and the song seems like a kind of “Holy shit, this is not the way to do this”, kind of moment, just a good slathering of understatement.
Unbelievably mournful slide announces that “Super 8” was but a flitting relief. “Yvette” is about a girl the singer sees with “cut glass eyes” and “covered up head to toes, so nobody will notice you”. In response he sings, “I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be, so I’m cleaning my Weatherby”. It’s not about the song moving toward justice, it’s about the response this narrator has to this: there may be some sense of justice found in it, but it’s just something like the way Isbell chooses to address things like this–there’s no joy, relief, or pride in his voice, just the sense that he feels this is the only solution, ensuring that her father will simply never be. It’s not treated as right, or, for that matter, wrong. 
“Relatively Easy” is some relative of the comparative depth of problems phrased in the right way: it’s about seeing hope and goodness knowing things could be worse, not about reducing the problems that are via that comparison. And the word “relatively” manages to capture that almost perfectly. Kim Richey joins again on vocals, and the track is sad and quiet in sound, as it does recognize that problems remain real, but finds some light around those problems. The chorus is my favourite on the record, the way that their voices don’t drop a syllable in the whole beat, only speeding or changing for that word “relatively” as it is a difficult word to use here, as it’s attempting to encompass relativity in itself, which is not something any word should have to do alone. But it’s a damn fine closer for the record.
Listening to this, I was forced to remind myself how I had scaled my future choices going up (or is it down?) the list, and to shrug and settle for reasons I’ll address as time goes on, but none of those reasons relate to any downfall for this particular record. While there are a number of people I discuss music with on most occasions we interact, there are others who almost never say a word, and one of those is my mother–she was very pleased with the clever word choices in “Elephant” and said so at the moment she heard them. I don’t know that I can really work that into some kind of largely-silent-but-speaks-when-it-matters judgment, but certainly the lack of focus on music means that there’s a clearer sincerity when she hears something she likes.
If forced, I would probably render the old “favourite” versus “objectively better” comparison when it comes to Isbell’s work, now. I’m inclined to believe that this is indeed the staying work as things stand, even if that self-titled album remains my personal favourite. Which means, of course, that you would be well-served checking into this record for yourself!
  • Up Next: Number Seven!

Number Nine: Toro y Moi – Anything in Return (2013, of course)

Carpark Records ■ CAK77

Released January 16, 2013
Produced by Chaz Bundick
Engineered by Patrick Brown, Second Engineer Jorge Hernandez
Mixed by Patrick Brown and Chaz Bundick
Mastered by Joe Lambert


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Harm in Change
  2. Say That
  3. So Many Details
  1. Rose Quartz
  2. Touch
  3. Cola
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Studies
  2. High Living
  3. Grown Up Calls
  1. Cake
  2. Day One
  3. Never Matter
  4. How’s It Wrong

Toro y Moi came to me via the broadcast that is staff overhead selection at one of the music stores I frequent on longer trips–Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. The album had been out for all of two months when I heard “Cake” playing there and decided to go with an instinct I’d previously experienced during my endless trips to CD Alley in Chapel Hill in years prior. I’d never heard of Toro y Moi, nothing new for me and my complete obliviousness to modern independent music, except as it filters in by chance or through the few friends who track it.


As it was the one I heard (a reasoning that also inspired the purchase of records like Tobacco’s Maniac Meat and Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation), it was the first one I purchased. Causers of This followed in April, and then it was the synchronicity of a work trip to Atlanta that led me to see Toro y Moi in concert in October last year. I picked up the rest of his albums, as well as a few odd singles and the 3×7″ box set of bedroom recordings that was released as well. Still, Anything in Return is the one I return to most often.
At that show, Chaz was the closest thing I’ve seen to a superstar. Classixx opened for him (new to me, and worth checking out, as their Hanging Gardens could easily slip into an expanded top list for last year), but when he came out, it was unlike anything I’m used to in small venues or even large ones. There’s a roar for bands, and everyone is often focused on vocalists, but the fact that Chaz does his albums “Prince-style” (in the impossible-to-read-in-the-LP notes, it mentions he performed the entire album alone) seemed to shift the tone, somehow. The crowd was larger, it was a different kind of music, a different kind of venue, but there was still something to it.
It’s a bit strange, to be honest–not undeserved, but almost out of keeping with his music. He was first identified with the aptly-named “chillwave”, one of those terms that seemed a flash-in-the-pan, but defiantly remains in use as many such things do, thanks to sheer bull-headedness. Unlike his earlier work, though, Anything is a lot more energetic. That said, the energy is of a subdued and extremely cool variety, in most slang senses of the world, and often even a bit of the metaphorical incarnation of the most “literal” use of the word.


“Harm in Change” starts things on a rattle of percussion that leaves the bass away from the record for a good bit, until the song completely splits open over Chaz’s increasingly passionate vocals, rising in pitch and tightening, as if drawing in the disparate parts of the backing track to break it all open, even if the bass is still minimal. The second single from the album (though it did not actually receive a 7″, it did get a video) pushes a fuzzy bass beat to the forefront, or it would, anyway, if not for the chopped vocal sample that swirls around Chaz’s laidback vocal. The video almost manages to encapsulate the curiosity of Toro y Moi as a musical project: Chaz dances randomly, awkwardly, but almost stationary, throughout a forest. It’s restrained for the most part, controlled, and all about an infectious beat that maybe you don’t quite want to openly show your appreciation of.

“So Many Details” is the one track that did get a 7″, introduced with a faltering beat, and a thumping bass versus hi-hat beat. It is like a wonderful collision of the marching band-bass boom of hip-hop beats, the cold, alien piercing sounds of a lot of electronic music, and little hints of the synthesizer-oriented niches that ride the wave of nostalgia to their appreciation. In that sense, it sets the stage most completely for the album as a whole:

“Rose Quartz” continues this feeling, with punctuated bass swinging its weight behind every other sound, feeling ridiculously sensual in its way. “Touch” is one of the interlude-like moments on the album, but developed enough (it’s a good 2:30) to still feel complete. It’s nearly instrumental, and sets the stage for the yet-more laidback “Cola”, which hangs itself on the hook of reverberated monotone synthesizer wobbles.

The end of side two ends up perfectly setting up the stronger, harder beat of “Studies”, which is softened just enough by the falsetto vocals that it turns what could be a dark rolling bassline into a dancey movement. Guitar noodling layers the whole thing over to slide it into an easy place like half-lidded eyes, though a pinched, nasal sort of string rears up in little snarls at the middle and end to keep those eyes from closing completely. “High Living”, on the other end, has a ridiculous langorous cruising sort of movement to it, and doesn’t feel any particular need to force you awake, as it is just musically carefree: it’s tight and bound to its beat, but the beat is so natural that that almost doesn’t matter. “Grown Up Calls” is something of an R&B interlude from the 90s, a scatter of sounds until shaker and bass glue it all together to turn it to a full-on groove.

I don’t think I can question the fact that “Cake” is my favourite track on the record: warm, sustained synth chords, a wiggling curlicue of a keyboard lick over them, and the kind of beat that pushes your head down and forward to follow it. Chaz’s verses are exceedingly great at seeming to define the beat rather than follow it. The ebb and flow of the backing track as it goes through the sparse verses and then the thrum of the chorus is just fantastic. I’ve been openly guilty of miserable physical expression of my appreciation of this one in a work environment, no less. It just hits all the right kind of notes–alas, not one of the times where I picked the single (and I had 3 chances to be right!), but that’s all right.

“Day One” shambles along like something off Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but with just a little bit less of the deliberate ramshackle-ness: it’s clear Chaz was aiming for something smooth. And so it smooths out, even around that clatter of percussion, bonding it with softer, smoother synthesized sounds and some of his more mid-range and comfortable vocals.

While “Cake” didn’t make it, “Never Matter” did–it got its own video of random people videotaped dancing to it on headphones, and you really can’t blame them. It’s a dance-y beat, sprays of synthesizer and the plain-old irresistible hook of “Push it along…” that carries with it a wilder key riff than most of the album. And when those slow, sustained chords ring out by themselves and climb up slowly after the back-and-forth juggle bridge only to fall back on that hook–yeeow! Good stuff. Makes you wanna dance even if you can’t (Hello! We have something in common!).

“How’s It Wrong” closes the album, and still gives me those amusing mental points of Donald Fagen soundscape. It’s not unreasonable–electronics-heavy, smooth, but the rhythms and Chaz’s vocal style shake away such cobwebs pretty quickly. The beat is too heavy for Fagen’s stuff, and the groove far too sensual and dance-y. The track itself doesn’t scream out “album-closer”, but the dissolution into warbling wateriness and distant bleepiness, cold but friendly, spins it all off into space quite nicely.

Oddly, 2013 made it harder for me to pick the higher end of the list, rather than the lower end. My top two were undeniable, but as it got up the list, it got harder to say–I finally settled on this record because it’s one thing to make an ass of myself home alone, and entirely another to do so (in this fashion, at least) in front of coworkers. That the show made me feel like I’d somehow managed to magically catch a rising star on the way up, too–get in now, while you still have a chance to figure his stuff out for yourself, before you’re inundated and can’t divorce it from endless appearances! Only a few of my friends recognize the name, but all nod approvingly when it happens–join them, and start here.

On a silly sidenote: the CD version (which I also own) has a version of the cover in black and white, which bears the wonderful invitation “Color me!”, but the vinyl sadly lacks this, despite containing the same version of the image. Indeed, it is the flip of the first inner sleeve, and was facing outward when I found the record (amusingly, in October, back at Lunchbox, a week from the show I’d go to, and completely oblivious to that fact at the time). Ah, well. Guess it’s better not to risk folks trying to colour with the LP still in the inner sleeve!

  • Up Next: Number Eight!

So This Is the New Year…

Well, it’s 2014.

Every year I seem to flutter into a new approach to how to write about music, as one of my driving instincts is to share music, but an audience that is attuned to such a thing is not something I’ve yet grasped how to acquire (indeed, most of my traffic–what isn’t spam–is folks looking at something they already like). Of course, I understand–even my wide splatter of taste is informed more at random than it is by seeking out explicit and continual sources of new material, barring those cases where it comes as a by-product of what I’m doing otherwise, as is most readily seen in my affection for Nevermind the Buzzcocks and much of the music it exposed me to.

So, all I can do is type out words into the ether, maybe here and there actually clicking with someone, and maybe not. This format still seems logical to me, as it has that “hook” of the familiar, surrounded by things that aren’t.

I may relax the alphabet, or otherwise change up the progression (as facing Album XY, or Z would often leave me faced with forced listening), but I think I’ll stick with the overall theme of my own collection, unless I can again wrangle in some of my good friends to include their own thoughts.

What I think should start the year is a countdown of the top 10 albums–for me personally, of course, not necessarily as definitive answers–of 2013, as I own most of them on vinyl as well as CD. There’s at least one exception, and that would be number ten, hence this very entry.

It skirts the line for me on a multi-medium purchase, but it’s Neko Case’s record from last year–I haven’t got anything against it, obviously, but also no overriding instinct to double up on it, for whatever reason. I suppose, then, that’s why it comes in at ten. I do, however, own all 9 of the others on vinyl, so if I can manage around work, you can look forward to them (or down on them, if you so choose!) over the next nine days.

Cheers to anyone still here to see this!