Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Here We Rest

Written by April 12th, 2011 at 10:59 am

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Here We Rest
(Lightning Rod)
Rating: ★★★★☆

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest is not what you’d call easy listening. No, one could hardly describe the stories Isbell conveys in these 11 songs, the sad imagery of down-and-out characters living disappointing lives, as uplifting. Yet, while it may not be filled with sunshine daydreams (though there is some walking in the tall trees), “Here We Rest” still makes for incredibly pleasing listening.

That’s because the former Drive-by Trucker is so prodigiously talented, with a singular ability to write thought-provoking, literate lyrics and deliver them in a direct, clear tenor bearing traces of Jackson Browne’s (without the occasional descent into whine). Equally at home on the gorgeously sad solo ballad “Daisy Mae” and the Memphis-blues/Muscle Shoals-soul-influenced “Heart on a String,” Isbell, ably augmented by the 400 Unit (plus guests Abby Owen on vocals Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals), explores places he never visited with the Truckers. They’re territories (around his Northern Alabama hometown, actually) that may bear their share of desperation, but don’t seem to harbor as much of the cynicism that permeated Truckers tunes. Fear and perhaps loathing, yes; in “We’ve Met,” he sings, “My playground fears have faded, replaced with grownup nightmares that come true.” And in “Codeine,” the lyrics go, “if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s this bar and this cover band, tryin’ to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’ … If there’s one thing I can’t take, it’s the sound a woman makes, about five seconds after her heart begins to break.”

Trashed Hendrix and trashed hearts… at least it’s leavened with the bayou blues of “Never Could Believe” and doses of slightly fuzzed Southern-comfort slide guitar, jazz piano, bluegrass breaks and, yeah, maybe even flickers of hope here and there.

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