Album Review – Jason Isbell “Here We Rest”
The propensity of the Drive By Truckers to get political on your ass, and just a general “like but not love” feeling I’ve had for their music over the years means I really don’t have a dog in the race when it comes to the whole Jason Isbell vs. Drive by Truckers tilt that’s been going on since he left the band a few years ago. When I saw him perform many of the songs from Here We Rest live at South by Southwest, I honestly had trouble keeping my attention on the stage. I’ll blame this partly on him flying without his “400 Unit” band, though he did have the fabulous Amanda Shires backing him up on fiddle, which in theory should have kept me more engaged. But it didn’t.
When this album was released a few weeks ago, the fervor with which many critics that I have respect for sung its praises made me retool my plans of ignoring it. And I have to say, I like it, or at least parts of it. Though I will have quite a few criticisms of it, it is more good than bad.
The first thing you need to know is this album contains an excellent song by the name of “Codeine” that captures with absolute brilliance that strange, depressing state of mind in the infant stages after a breakup: the little jealousies, the cold realizations of the changing of very mundane things. It also has a very good song, “Alabama Pines”. If you’re an album cherry picker, this is where to start.
Those two songs work great despite owning some of the same issues plaguing the whole album. Everything is so blended, so slick and produced to the point of rendering the album unnecessarily docile. Though there’s some good writing, there’s not one lyrical line that really hits right at your heart, not one instrumental performance that gets your heart pumping. In fact there’s not really any instrumental “solos” in the traditional sense on this album at all. “Slick” should not always be a bad word when describing music, but “safe” certainly can be.
Something tells me that the target audience for this album might get their news of the day from . . . I don’t know . . . let’s say Terry Gross. Maybe they like to spend their weekends with Ira Glass narrating little stories about This American Life. In other words, Here We Rest has the NPR effect on roots music phenomenon going on in full effect. Don’t get me wrong, I like NPR and appreciate its undeniable support of roots music, but it’s huge, overeducated audience might be causing gentrification in roots music, and this album might be the best example yet.
But in Jason Isbell’s defense, he was one of the pioneers of the “roots without pointy edges” sound to appeal to the affluent. When Old Crow Medicine Show brought producer Don Was on board to hone this type of sound, or when when Justin Townes Earle brought it to the production of Harlem River Blues (which Jason Isbell appears on), they did it at the expense of their past, of what made them appealing in the first place, ripping their roots out of the ground so to speak to appeal to a wider or a different demographic. This feels like a deeper sin to me than Jason Isbell doing what he does well.
And though most of these songs, including the two praised above, are constructed using very transparent formulas, I believe in gauging music not only on its independent merit, but against the abilities and limitations of the artist himself. Look, I’ve never thought of the Drive by Truckers as excellent songwriters, players, or singers. They had an appeal beyond those measures by bringing a hard-working, blue collar approach to their music. And I honestly feel like Here We Rest is Jason Isbell putting it all out there, leaving nothing in the tank, and stretching his limits. He made the best album he could muster, and that elevates it more than the appeal of the music itself.
But when I hear these songs, I can hear a formula. The songs “Go It Alone” and “We’ve Met” are probably the easiest examples, though I acknowledge their wicked catchiness and appeal. They use the formula, because the formula works.
The drums at the beginning of “Stopping By”, like a few times in this album, make you feel like you’re being transported back to the mid-late 1990’s when that polished “alt-country” sound was riding high. The problem is there’s nothing new here, and nothing old either. There’s no serious tie to the roots, and no innovation. The song “Never Could Believe” tries to be dirty, not from authenticity, but as a production approach.
Two songs I found wholly unappealing were “Heart On A String”, that tries way too hard to be white-boy soulful, and “The Ballad of Nobeard”. Isbell is no Tom Waits, and Here We Rest is no Swordfishtrombones. I understand wanting to add spice to an album, but this was ill-conceived.
But “Daisey Mae” works, and so do most of the songs when you boil it all down, and so does the album. Despite the transparency, the songs are enjoyable to listen to.
If you’re looking for twang or heart-wrenching songwriting, you might want to grab “Codeine” by itself and keep trucking. But if you like good songs that are easy to listen to and grip you on first or second listen, this may be right down your alley.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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May 6, 2011 @ 5:18 pm
I think “Codiene” is kinda slick in many ways. Go It Alone is a fantastic bluesy groove. They keep coming . . . number seven! Oh my! And Heart on a String should be on the radio instead of the POP stuff they play anymore.
Great blog Triggerman.
May 6, 2011 @ 5:35 pm
Slick is actually always a dirty word in my mind, I much prefer my music with sharp edges and and dirty rawness. However I did listen to ‘Codeine’ and have to say I love his voice. He’s sort of got that husky Rod Stewart thing going on. Although when I hear it I can’t help but see Paul McDonald, that American Idol contestant that wore the cool spangly Manuel suits in my head! When you talk about the gentrification of roots music and that whole NPR thing, it’s what I call ‘dinner party music’. The kind of CD one buys to put on only when one is entertaining to look hip and relevant. The music must be inoffensive to everyone in the room and completely unintrusive. But if the polite company do happen to notice the ‘wallpaper’ playing in the background they will be well impressed when they learn what they are listening. They had JUST read the review of it in their very important poncy music magazine they get airfreighted in from the UK! As I don’t have any dinner parties coming up I think I’ll give it a miss. Thanks anyway for the review Triggerman.
May 6, 2011 @ 6:15 pm
Good, thoughtful review. However, I don’t know that I agree that his music is an example of the NPR gentrification of roots music. I think Jason is who he is. More of a rootsy rocker and not a pure roots music artist. Kind of like a young John Hiatt. I think he’s the rare triple threat in that he is a strong singer, songwriter and lead guitar/slide player. While he was with the Truckers, he did most of the heavy lifting with respect to lead guitar work.
I like his singing on Heart on a String. To me, I could see how one born and raised in Muscle Shoals, Alabama would like to have some fun with a song like that.
And you know, slick’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the soul isn’t completely sucked out of the music. To use a blues analogy, I’d probably pick Howlin’ Wolf over T-Bone Walker most times, but sometimes it’s good to hear that tasty T-Bone stuff.
May 6, 2011 @ 7:31 pm
“While he was with the Truckers, he did most of the heavy lifting with respect to lead guitar work.”
I meant to make this pint in the review, but yeah, he played a lot of the DBT’s leads, he played lead for Justin Townes Earle on his album and on his Letterman appearance, but there’s no lead on this album, his or anybody elses. So this takes one of his best assets off the table. I understand he wants to have the music represent what he does live, and in this band, he strums acoustic guitar, but the lack of leads lends to the “sleepiness” of this album.
I think it’s good music, I just think it could have been better with some more boldness.
May 6, 2011 @ 10:12 pm
Triggerman: Yeah, I’d like him to cut loose more than he has. There is some lead guitar going on on this album. I know that because there was NEGLIGIBLE lead guitar on the previous album and I was happy to hear something in that regard on this one. Enjoyed the previous one too, but…
As I said, this was a very thougthful review, as your reviews typically are. Appreciate what you do.
May 6, 2011 @ 7:12 pm
I guess you have to be from Alabama for Alabama Pines to hit you & tour of duty is also good but i found it to be a really good album
Sound In The Signals Magazine
May 7, 2011 @ 2:54 am
Good review. I like this album. I need some more time with it to see how well it sits with me. I’ve been listening to a few other things lately.
I do however really like this album art. Really well done in that department and sticks out really nicely.
Trigger what is your favorite album of the year so far?
May 7, 2011 @ 12:45 pm
It’s been a VERY down year for most of the music I usually cover . . . . so far. That is why I am doing reviews for Jason Isbell, Micah Schnabel, Caitlin Rose, and a few others that may normally be off my beaten path, probably making some wonder what the hell is going on. And no specific album or artist should feel offended by me saying that (though they still will). There has been some good projects. But overall, it has been down. I’m not sure what my favorite album is so far. I imagine I’ll put a list together of my favorites so far in June like I normally do.
Sound In The Signals Magazine
May 7, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
Yeah I hear you man there have been a few good ones here and there. I’m hoping that the latter part of the year holds some really good ones.
Right now Rachel Brooke might be near the top spot for my favorite country(ish) album this year.
May 7, 2011 @ 10:05 pm
Should have some good stuff by the end of the year. Shooter Jennings will release his new one (described as his most country) in september and Hank III from what I have heard is in studio or was in studio recording a new country record. By the end of the year I think we will all have what we want. 2011 starting slow but should end good!
May 8, 2011 @ 6:13 am
So far I’d go with Bob Wayne, Outlaw Carnie as the best but with all do respect I hope the best is yet to come. I’m still waiting on my Farmaggeddon Danielle (from american pickers) CD.
May 7, 2011 @ 5:20 pm
Never been a Truckers fan or Isbell. Saw him once with JTE a few years back and left mid way through the set. Very, very bland. Nothing new or interesting at all.
May 7, 2011 @ 6:30 pm
Slick or not, this guy can write a better song than 95% of the artists hovering around the country genre today. And don’t get me started on his lyrical supremacy….something about Jason Isbell seems so damn “real” when he is matched up with the Merle and Waylon wannabes.
This certainly is my favorite of 2011 so far.
May 8, 2011 @ 12:58 pm
Sometimes no matter how bland or SWPL-oriented a song is, the artist’s talent comes through, regardlessly.
Such is the case with Codeine.
May 9, 2011 @ 4:52 pm
Good review, and I know youre not bashing him for being slick or whatever, but those are some damn good songs off it (I guess Im somewhat of a cherry picker of albums), but like some other folks said, anybody doing anything for the scene helps out everybody else, because hopefully the the npr crowd will delve a little deeper into this type of music. Theres no such thing as bad publicity, and the more listeners and fans the better, in my opinion
"Louie" Chris Lewis
May 10, 2011 @ 8:30 am
I haven’t fully checked out this album yet but did get a free download of Codeine and I think it’s great. I haven’t followed Isbell since he left Drive-by Truckers but Drive-by Truckers are still one of my favorite southern rock bands alongside Lucero. The album “The Dirty South” even though it’s old is still an album that plays in my truck regularly. I was always a big fan of Isbell’s voice when he was with DBT but ever since he left I always thought Mike Cooley had a way better voice than Patterson Hood. My alltime favorite song was “Cottonseed” and “Tornadoes”. Another great song by Isbell is “Dress Blues”.
May 10, 2011 @ 11:41 am
I’m with you on “Dirty South.” That one and “Decoration Day” are two of my favorites from the last decade. Of course, the two albums previous to these (and pre-Isbell), “Southern Rock Opera” and “Pizza Deliverance”, were very strong and this all added up to a very impressive four album run.
I still like what the Truckers are doing, but their song output isn’t quite as strong since Jason left. Cooley is a strong songwriter, but not a prolific one. So instead of more Cooley, we get a couple from Shonna (who is slowly getting better) and more Patterson, who is very prolific. I think he’s written some great songs and I think his voice definitely has its charm, but I think about six songs from him per album is about right for me.
"Louie" Chris Lewis
May 12, 2011 @ 2:52 pm
I agree with ya on the latest song output since Jason left. I used to really connect with the stories they told in their songs but not so much anymore. I am getting more into Shonna’s voice and songs as well. She is definately getting better. I’ve never really gotten into Patterson’s voice. It just doesn’t grab my attention like Isbell’s or Cooley’s.
May 22, 2011 @ 9:18 am
I caught these guys last night and I thought they put on a good show. I don’t have either of their albums, but I thought they had enough good songs to put on a pretty strong set. There was alot of lead guitar live, at times bordering on shredding, so I’m surprised that there was so little on the new album.
I was surprised at the soulfulness in Isbell’s voice. It might sound put-on for the album, but it sounded great live. They did a great cover of “Dock of the Bay;” and he can definitely sing.
They came out with “Codeine” for the encore. You have to admit that it really is a great song. These dudes also chugged a pretty massive amount of Jack before all was said and done.
Not to rehash tired debates, but my main criticism is that I’m not sure if this is country music in any way. He has a Southern inflection in his singing voice, but other than that it comes across as rock to me. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that because I love rock, too. I think this probably matches their opinion of themselves, as they covered the aforementioned “Dock of the Bay” as well as “Psycho Killer” and “American Girl.”
Maria Taylor opened for them and although I wasn’t familiar with her, they had a great song “Song Beneath the Song” which sounded much livelier, more basic, and better live than any recording of it I can find online. Another key point, her sister plays drums for her and she is very hot. Never a bad thing.
May 23, 2011 @ 9:49 am
So you must be in Central New York. He was playing The Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, DC on Friday and I saw that his next date was in Ithaca. Wanted to go Friday, but ultimately opted not to because it would have made for a very, very long day. If he was playing somewhere that I could have easily driven to and parked, I think I would have went.
A great showcase of Mr. Isbell’s guitar prowess is the Drive By Truckers Live at the 40 Watt DVD.
April 29, 2022 @ 3:31 pm
I really enjoy this album. I think there are about 5 songs that are catchy, well-done lyrically and have held up over the years. Alabama Pines, Never Could Believe and Codeine are songs I like to listen to weekly and may be some of my favorite songs by Isbell.
Definitely agree with some of the points made. The album has a bland feel for much of it. Additionally, it could use a little more “lead” on the guitar.