Breakups are a bitch on everyone inside and out of the relationship. When a band I love breaks up, or one member peels off, I cannot help but feel a bit conflicted. Am I more dedicated to one member than another? Does the lineup really affect my feeling about the band? Keep in mind that my favorite band ever is The Fall and their lineup just changed right now...and again...right now, and I still love them. Will this mean some awkward lonely moments in the peel-offer's new crappy apartment, languidly dipping our chips in the bottled salsa, secretly pining for the former-band's exquisite black bean pico? Probably. But its OK, change is good. We'll all get through it and besides, it's just a band right? There will be plenty of other bands, you'll see.
The Salvation Blues
It's been ten years since Mark Olson left the much revered Jayhawks, but he is still saddled with the title of "former Jayhawk." Much to the dropping jaw of my Americana-loving compatriots, I never cared all that much for the Jayhawks. They were a little too clean for my tastes, and alt-country is plagued by true-believer fans that will never let a band go. See the slobbering induced by the mere mention of the Old 97's despite them not even being that consistently good when they were an active concern.
What I did love, though, was his Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers project with his warbling wife Victoria Williams. The sound with that was homey and raw, steeped in domestic tension and bliss, partially because of the home studio they culled together out in Joshua Tree. Things run their course, and Williams and Olson parted company, leaving to him to finally craft his muse to his particular liking, and in that, he finds some resolution for art.
The Salvation Blues has nary a spec of grit marring its well-swept hardwood floors, but it is by no means an antiseptic recording. His high voice shakes through "Clifton Bridge" and the title track like a bird fluttering accidentally into your house. His tone is crepuscular and dozy, clouded in a mist of brushed cymbals and almost subconscious pedal steel. His mood gets the best of him in more maudlin numbers like "Keith" and "National Express" but "My Carol" and "Look into the Night" offer up majestic cicada-filled odes to the Indian summer that is love.
Sirens of the Ditch
The separation between Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers is still fresh, but both parties have seemed to part ways with as much amiability as possible (DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan all appear on the disc, and front man Patterson Hood co-produced it) Fortunately, Isbell has taken this as opportunity to stretch out and give his own material room to shine.
There are a couple semi-pileup devastating numbers like "Try" with this powerful couplet
You can't make her stay her ass at home
But you try, don't you
and "Dress Blues" a heart-wrenching tale of soldiers coming home in a box. His best DBT songs walked this same graveled path, but here he has more of a polished and sweet accompaniment to support them. What really catches my ears, though are his rockers like "Brand New Kind of Actress" and "Shotgun Wedding" letting his humor and chops fill every gap in the songs. He's a lot like Tom Petty in that regard, that when he's on, he creates these decidedly simple songs that are filled to the dam-edge with words and images.
"Down in a Hole" is the prime example. It's a smoky bar-band shuffle that somehow bears the weight of copious detail he places upon it. Its like Ulysses set in a Texarkana bar, Miller Light sings casting an unearthly blue glow on the inhabitants therein. Bar rock is hard to do smart, hell, it's hard to do at all. Those countless Skynyrd and Allman Brothers songs are complicated numbers when you listen to them, but to swim in those waters and still manage to inject some great lyrics is quite a feat.
One issue I have is that nothing on the Jason Isbell album scintillates quite like his "Goddamn Lonely Love" does off DBT's The Dirty South. That song is a wrecking ball, and most of these hit like a ball peen hammer, "Dress Blues" excepted. Also, he never quite soars vocally like he does on "Daylight" from A Blessing and Curse. But these are minor complaints. It and the Mark Olson record are both amazingly crafted, carefully nuanced, beautiful records, and besides, when you go out on your own, you need to watch where you step.
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