I knew from the first strum of the guitar on "For Beginners" even before his raspy voice bled out of that old radio on the shelf of your mind, the one you never thought worked and can't remember how it got there. M. Ward never comes on the heels of thunder but drifting in with the rain pattering on the roof. He shakes up the formula a little with some faded glam stylings on the cover of "Rave On" and "Never Had Nobody Like You" featuring Zooey Dechanel, and well, I bet he never had nobody like her. Their duo album as She & Him pushed M. Ward into a wider public consciousness last year, which had to help at least pay for the rental for the time machine M Ward employs to craft these timeless records. I am fond of saying songs I like feel more dreamt than sung, but I don't really mean it when I talk about people other than M. Ward. With a subdued sonic palette he crafts panoramic views that are too lovely to take in, like when the strings overtake "Jailbird."
No disrespect to Dechanel, but if only he'd done a whole record with Lucinda Williams (who I will get to in a minute) Their collaboration "Oh Lonesome Me" is the perfect mathematical median between Ward's careful sonic structures and Williams' aching desperation, delivering the kind of love song that scares you a little, like real love does. But I am convinced M. Ward can do anything. "Epistemology" is the best Bible-influenced here's -who-I-am ramble in ages, and "Shangri-la" is the most gorgeous folk song on the planet right now, and "Outro" is the sound of the approach of your boat through the mist to the far shores of heaven. How a record can be so sweet without an ounce of syrup is beyond me.
Listen on lala.
I also loved Lucinda Williams' rocked-up record from late last year from the first bar band lick in "Real Love" but it took a drive through six hours of Mississippi Delta to make me fully, deeply smitten. On "Real Love" Lucinda is not pleading for it or bemoaning its passing but as the girl you want with complete fixation. The real love is, of course, not eternal, but it is as real as anything on Earth. The whole record feels that way, the tearjerkers "Circles and X's" and "If Wishes Were Horses" are as potent as any heartbreak moment of her past catalog. In fact, the only time I lose the thread is when Elvis Costello suddenly appears in "Jailhouse Tears" hamming up what could be the best fuck-you-too-baby song since The Pogues' "Fairy Tale in New York."
There is plenty to draw me back in though. The unraveled blues of "Tears of Joy," the whiplash fuzz threat of "Honey Bee" and the devastating ambience of "Rarity." Little Honey is a complete statement of love, how you are flung to the extremes on its elastic tether, never still enough to see it all from the middle. In the mid-tempo "Knowing" she lists what she didn't know: what love meant before, how fragile a kiss could seem , etc. before arriving on admitting her ignorance of
About the knowing and
the knowing is all there is
About yes and yes, this is it
I didn't know
Submitting to that realization is love in its deepest form.
That said, the price of admission is justified for the killer unironic rendition of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" almost clownishly growled in Lucinda's best growl but it takes about 30 seconds for her to completely embody the tune, making me forget about AC/DC. It is a off-the-rails drunk boogie reading, like you half-expect Lucinda to come tumbling, giggling through the speakers into your arms any second, and any song that can put that in my head is a winner in my book.
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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
(Lightning Rod Records)
Perhaps there will be a day when Isbell's tenure in Drive-By Truckers, penning two of the best songs in their catalog ("Outfit" and "Goddamn Lonely Love") while there, will no longer need to be mentioned. It will be as silly as referring to Tom Petty as a former member of Mudcrutch. But that time isn't here yet. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is an album of brilliantly crafted slow-burners bears the mark of his former band, even paralleling the softening of the sound with the preponderance of organs and slide guitar throughout, pointing toward a more individual statement.
The strength Isbell brought to the group and excels with here is his ability to take a cliché and fold it like a paper airplane, sending it soaring. "Cigarettes and Wine" saunters across a lonely bar just like you think a song with that name will, speaks to this saying that ain't much of a line, but it's the God's only truth. And you feel that from Isbell, that the parade of heartbreakers here are all sincere as falling in love with a cute bartender: transparent and real. "However Long" takes his sentiments to a larger arena, indicting leaders who view the little man thus: blessed are the poor when they are hanging from a gallows before sweeping up into resolution of I ain't afraid no more. Corny rarely feels this inspiring anymore.
One of the few rockers ,"Good" rattles down the dusty roads of the bruised ego. He can't make himself do right on Friday night when the shadows get bigger , they get bigger in the light, but he can rock a power ballad like nobody. But if there is a song that should be on the lips of every hormone-poisoned teenager sitting on a car outside the practice field, it is "The Blue" ostensibly a letter home from the road, but it stretched across the gulf as wide as the moment before a first nervous kiss with delicious longing. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is what young love sounds like in romanticized reflection, which is a good thing because if it sounded this good the first time around, we'd never survive it.
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Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com