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Two Country Albums

March 9, 2009

I am fairly uneducated on the subject of country music. That is mostly because I don’t listen to it, because it doesn’t toot my horn, so to say. I’ve had many people tell me, including Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, that being one of those people who seems to like just about everything except country music makes me ignorant, or a tool. To be honest, I don’t see how that works. If country music bores me, it bores me, and I don’t have to answer to anyone about that. Of course, there is that occasional country song that might make a positive impression on me (see my review for Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s solo album, which contains a lot of my other attitudes about country music). But for the most part, it is a genre I am generally inclined to dislike, unless, like in James Iha’s case, it is categorized as “folk rock” or “alternative country.”

This week I just so happened to be treated to two new releases that could be categorized as “alternative country.” These albums are Middle Cyclone by Neko Case and the self titled album by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Both albums are by solo artists and the similarities between the artists and my relationship with them are quite prominent. They are both members of popular bands, Neko Case being a member of The New Pornographers and Jason Isbell being a former member of The Drive-By Truckers. I have no experience with either solo artist whatsoever, and little to no experience with the bands that they are/were a part of. One of these albums pleased and excited me, and one of them did not. I’d like to review both of them and what they did to make me feel a particular way about them.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Naturally, the first thing that struck me about this album was the cover, and how Tarantino-esque it is. And upon listening to the album, it becomes obvious that the cover is only a bit misleading. Middle Cyclone is an album full of rolling acoustic guitar melodies within short, digestible songs that move fast, and Case is a traveling country samurai. The opening “This Tornado Loves You” is an early highlight, with fast jangly guitars and expressive vocals. The sonic palette she uses is rather expansive, and within the song she pulls several tricks out of her sleeve: airy backing vocals, pizzicato strings, and exciting dynamics. But “Tornado” is only one of the more exciting and upbeat songs on the album, and for the most part, the rest of the songs are outstanding. This is a country album, but not in the form that most people would expect. The most classical country songs here are the two covers, one of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and another of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” As lovely as they are, they are peripheral to Neko Case’s melodies, which are comparatively free form for country music and quite exciting. The singalong “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” the music box simplicity of the title track and the jazzy stomp of “Red Tide” are a few other more memorable pieces. There is another weapon in addition to innovative songcraft that make the album strong; the sword that Case uses to cut through the songs is her vocals, and her delivery is sublime. She sings about many of the typical country topics…hard relationships, acting tough, and the love behind both. But it is the idiosyncratic country melodies and the vitality with which Case sings that keeps our ears glued to our speakers track to track.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

While a sense of subtle danger and adventure is what makes Middle Cyclone such an engaging country album, it is stagnation that conversely makes Jason Isbell’s second solo album so much of a bore. One of my biggest problems with most contemporary country music is this stagnation, immovability, and the sheer fact that I have heard this music before, so why should I bother listening to it again? It just isn’t enough to humbly comment on the changing seasons, or sing about homely charms and hard liquor. ‘We all live in an Airstream trailer ’bout three hundred yards up the lake,’ Isbell sings on the opening “Seven-Mile Island.” ‘Call the doctor, Mary’s goin’ into labor and you can’t raise a baby on shake.’ This may be reality for many Americans, and there is nothing wrong with a strong dose of reality, and this is probably where Isbell shines the most, on the notable “Soldiers Get Strange” in particular, not so much an opinion either way on an issue so much as a keen observation. But the presentation is where this album really lacks. Isbell may be lyrically grounded, but songs like “Cigarettes and Wine” are flat out boring because they follow the same country progressions and trappings which the kinds of people like me, who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ohio curiously turning the radio dial trying to get an interesting frequency more often than expected, simply want to escape from. In the end, the album is simply derivative and dull. Great albums don’t have to do new or innovative things to be successful, but the stagnant genre that Isbell comes from puts it in a different situation. The burden of proof is now on artists like Neko Case and Jason Isbell to convince me that country music is not a hillbilly novelty. In the end, Case wins out, and I will hang on, but artists like Isbell, to truly be successful, need to make a conscious effort to widen their appeal.

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