Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album “Live from Alabama” feels like an anthem for the southern Generation X. The songs selected take you to a place that is bittersweet. The sound and feeling are reminiscent to the pins and needles one would feel in their hands after white knuckled angst has finally left a soul longing for something more.
It is no secret to those of us who came of age in the 80’s and early 90’s that an entire generation was left waiting for something that never seemed to come to fruition. Generation X had no major war to protest, no draft to dodge and rather than a sexual revolution, they were given anxiety at the mere thought of open sexual relations. The South still lost its sons to foreign lands to fight in conflicts with no particular name as it fell further into economic and social blight. Spared of the bliss relevant to the Clinton years, in the South, there was only more wounded veterans, more urban decay and a longing for better times that never came to be.
“Live from Alabama” embraces these emotions with a nostalgic bliss right from the start with “Tour of Duty”. The song wraps around you like the warmth of a well-aged whiskey and settles you in for what is perhaps one of the best rides through southern love and culture I have ever taken.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit then takes a step back in Jason’s own personal history with “Decoration Day”, a Drive By Truckers classic that reinforces the feel of this southern man’s angst through a story of family feuding and a contempt for a war that was inherited and never wanted. The fact that this was originally a Drive By Truckers tune is an empty thought as Isbell and his band exhibit a new found ownership.
If you had ever before thought that The 400 Unit was lacking, they show more than ever that they are no longer merely a backing band but a musical force to be reckoned with. Boasting the smooth keys of Baltimore’s Derry Deborja, the ridiculous bass lines of Jimbo Hart and the myriad of flawless fills of drummer Chad Gamble, there is a newfound fluidity as well as identity evident in these recorded performances. When they go into the third track of the album “Goddamn Lonely Love”, you are left wondering why DBT failed to take you where The 400 Unit currently abides.
When the band moves into the fourth track, “Heart on a String”, Isbell makes a point by giving up the original credits of the tune at the start of the number. His point is simple, while it may be a cover of an old song recorded in a Muscle Shoals studio, they own it now. If more bands could go about playing covers in the same manner they would find more ownership of the stages and musical spaces they sonically occupy. However, as the album proves, most bands lack the skills necessary to hold up that end of the bargain. Jason Isbell and The 400 unit deliver those goods and make you want to give your speakers a tip for the delivery.
Moving onward into “Danko/Manuel”, Isbell’s tribute to fallen members of The Band, fully highlights his own experiences and most important, his own craft. This track pulls you into your own thoughts. The performance gives light to the thoughts we all have hiding in the shadows and dark recesses of our minds. The three piece horn section fully enables the listener to throw open the long locked doors of those emotions and examine an inner self we rarely look at, let alone take the time to properly inventory.
The album then moves through the sorrowful crooning of “In a Razor Town”, highlighting the hopelessness of so many small rural towns and the inhabitants therein. The tone evokes a need for another shot of whiskey and a pity for those who had ever felt the loss of hope and had to settle for something less.
You are then lifted up from that place and taken back into your own introspection and homesickness by the award winning song “Alabama Pines”. It is a steady song that chugs down the rails of your memories like an old coal powered locomotive making it a little too easy to forget how you feel but too hard to remember that place you have lost. This seems a fitting place to find the next track coming around the bend of the old Drive By Truckers favorite, “Outfit”, holding true to the southern nostalgia this album constantly evokes.
As the album, begins to wind down, “Cigarettes and Wine” reminisces of romance gone wrong, because it was never necessarily right but was still necessary. Gamble’s cymbal crashes throughout this rendition are sure to keep the listener more than enthralled and beckon you to sing along.
Moving back into another Drive By Truckers tune, “TVA”, Isbell exemplifies and defines what Americana music is today, a good hard look back at what made us who we are today. The music is stirring and steady as are the lyrics. This particular track will certainly make the listener wonder where they might be today without the agencies and organizations that created the landmarks forever linked to our memories.
“The blue”, one of the final three tracks takes you out on the road away from home and happiness. The track takes you to a place defined by the “what if’s” we have all experienced in our lives. This track also lays the ground work and amply sets the stage for the last two tracks.
“Dress Blues” takes us back to the plight of young southern men throughout the rural south. It is a tale of getting in the recruiter’s line rather than the welfare line and the early graves too many friends found themselves in. It is a hard song to handle for those who have experienced this, but as stated earlier, this entire album is blessed with these bitter sweet ballads eliciting tears through a half drunken smile.
The final track, “Like a Hurricane”, gets back to the business of Muscle Shoals southern rock. Like the other covers on the album, despite the song being written by Neil Young, you get a feeling that Isbell owns the song. He owns them sonically and like he was there through every smile, every tear, every longed for final embrace.
Do yourself a favor when you buy this album. Go out, buy yourself a bottle, turn out the lights, turn off your cellphone and prepare to experience the South through the eyes of Jason Isbell. He is not just a gem of southern song writers and performers but he allows you to bear witness to a truly great, modern songwriter with the ability to concrete his own place in the annals of time…
written by Taco