In this edition: Jason Isbell, Honey Island Swamp Band, Dirty Streets, Big Black Cloud, and The Mantles.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Jason Isbell: Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
There’s always been a touch of poetry to Jason Isbell’s brand of rock, an Alabama cousin to Paul Westerberg and Jim Carroll, but the rough-hewn eloquence, gorgeously etched musical settings, and spare-no-punches insights of Southeastern (released June 11) mark him as this generation’s answer to Alex Chilton – a graceful, quietly artful storyteller whose tales hum with bruised honesty and unexpected tenderness, a warts-and-all truth-teller with real compassion for humanity’s struggles against its appetites and tattered histories.
Go leave your boots by the bed
We ain’t leaving this room
‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good
If you’ve lived and loved hard, stayed in bad, heavy places longer than you should have, shunned the light because it burned and let your fears slap away good things, well, Southeastern is gonna stir up some ghosts. This album is about the redemptive and destructive powers of love, a straight talkin’ explication of how and who we love can shape us, either to heal us or tear us down, and always our own hand stirring the goddamn pot. The emotional density and sheer artistry of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky and Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 all come to mind at different points listening to Southeastern, and Isbell and his fine collaborators – including new spouse Amanda Shires, whose duet vocals and soulful violin here are just superb – deliver these tales in settings both acoustic and spare and nicely rocked out, pacing out the different moods well and consistently highlighting Isbell’s so-honest-it-hurts singing, which at times evokes the late great Charlie Rich. The vagabond life of a working musician underpins these tales but it’s when the doors shut and it’s just a couple people face-to-face or a man alone that things get real – something most folks do all they can to avoid in this writer’s experience, and thus an even greater achievement to keep things focused on the nitty-gritty throughout this set.
The days of Isbell being “that guy that used to be in the Drive-By Truckers” are over. He’s done a lot of work to find his true voice and vision, and the 400 Unit is simply one of the most reliably great live rock bands going. With the self-released Southeastern, Isbell fully establishes himself as the man and musician he is, a soul stirring, expert craftsman working in the mines of the human heart and mind and bringing us pure fuckin’ gold. (Dennis Cook)
Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
Honey Island Swamp Band: Cane Sugar (Louisiana Red Hot Records)
With a bond and sound forged while in exile from New Orleans in San Francisco post-Katrina, Honey Island Swamp Band deliver that old time rock ‘n’ roll where blues, soul and country all commingle over the course of a single album. This was the way of really good musicians – i.e. an open mind and a knack for knowing what gets people moving in the club – and throughout Cane Sugar (released July 30) one is reminded of the Doobie Brothers and Little Feat in their early, devil may care glory, albeit with a healthier scoop of Southern charm. The band sets the boogie phasers for stun right out of the gate with Allen Toussaint flavored opener Change My Ways and then proceeds to mix it up in really nifty ways, offering echoes of Lowell George at his sharpest (title cut), Paul Simon (Cast The First Stone), Dr. John (Never Saw It Comin’) and JJ Cale (Strangers). The playing and singing from everyone involved is just great, and the Impound can attest to this band’s dynamite live prowess. Cane Sugar is a highly enjoyable calling card for what’s shaping up to be future classic American rockers. (DC)
Ron’s Picks of the Week:
Dirty Streets: Blades of Grass (Alive Naturalsound)
When you hear of groups comprised of folks in their twenties, chances are they are trying to redraw the glory days of 4AD, Creation Records and/or Amphetamine Reptile. Not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination but man is it a breath of fresh air to hear someone from Generation Y basing their sound on something before 1987. Memphis trio Dirty Streets play the kind of hot ‘n’ sleazy AOR you thought had been buried in Steve Marriott’s coffin with him like a favorite pipe or handkerchief. The combination of drummer Andrew Denham, bassist Thomas Storz, and guitarist/vocalist Justin Tolan seem to have exhumed it for their own purposes. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios, the ghosts of Terry Manning, Pops Staples and Jim Dickinson indeed loom large over the 11 songs that comprise Blades of Grass (released July 9). And when infused with a deep understanding of Fireball-era Deep Purple and Black Sabbath’s Sabotage along with the whiskey-worn belt of Toland’s vocals – a swaggering blend of early Paul Rodgers and the late, great Ray Gillen of Badlands – you have yourself one of the best hard rock throwback albums to come out of the South since Raging Slab’s Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert. This Grass is truly smokin’! (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Big Black Cloud: Black Friday (Eolian Empire)
Portland, Oregon’s penchant for breeding the kind of nerdy, arty, somewhat-hip folks Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein poke fun at in their acclaimed IFC comedy series Portlandia hit a serious pothole the day noise rockers Big Black Cloud moved into town from the Dirty South nearly a decade ago. They make the kind of music their crispy, crunchy, hacky sack-playing and nebbishly rockist counterparts on the Northwest city’s social scene would run home crying to their mamas over. And on their phenomenal second full-length (released July 2), they push the fear of their presence in town even further into the sonic wood chipper by ramping up their brutal compound of Dead Kennedys surf, Scratch Acid scrape, and Drive Like Jehu squall to a whole new level of agitation with fuzzed-up freakouts like Bomb My Brain, Wastoids and Pile of Shit. Try putting a bird on this, Carrie and Fred, and see what happens to ya. [Listen to tracks here] (RH)
Ron’s Bonus Review:
The Mantles: Long Enough to Leave (Slumberland)
Quality new school jangle rock is very hard to come by in 2013. But on their second full-length (released June 12), San Francisco’s The Mantles deliver in spades, pulling together a melodic strain that falls somewhere between the Hoboken nervousness of The Bongos and The Feelies and the Paisley dirge of Dave Roback’s split mind between The Rain Parade and Opal. If your head is immersed in the sounds of vintage 80s college rock, The Mantles’ excellent new album is definitely worth the score. (RH)