Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
(Southeastern / Thirty Tigers *** 1/2)
Jason Isbell established himself as a songwriter of emotional depth way back on 2003‘s Decoration Day, the first of three albums he recorded as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. And ever since he got clean and sober on 2013’s Southeastern, the Americana guitarist and bandleader has been producing one forthright, finely wrought solo album after another.
Reunions maintains that winning streak. Isbell has taken pains to point out that the songs are for the most part imagined, rather than autobiographical. It’s tempting to doubt him, in part because a few have obvious roots in his own experience.
“It Gets Easier” (“but it never gets easy”) is about the ongoing battle to lay off the bottle. And “Letting You Go” is a heartrending parent’s lament. Isbell and his wife, 400 Unit fiddle player Amanda Shires, have a 4-year-old daughter.
But the real reason it’s hard to get your head around the idea that Isbell’s songs aren’t about Isbell is that they feel so completely lived-in, with telling details that ring true. “Poison oak to poison ivy, dirty jokes that blew right by me,” he sings in “Dreamsicle,” about a 14-year-old boy watching his parents’ marriage crumble. “Mama curling up beside me, crying to herself.”
Produced by longtime associate Dave Cobb, Reunions has a fuller, thicker sound than its recent predecessors. That rocked-out approach serves Isbell well when he gets his dander up, as on “What Have I Done To Help,” which features harmony vocals by David Crosby, and “Be Afraid.”
Those songs are exhortations to the world at large, urging others to prioritize the common good and speak up. But they also work as notes from the artist to himself to continue to face his fears and hold himself to the highest standard.
— Dan DeLuca
Petals for Armor
(Atlantic *** 1/2)
One of the most gifted emo graduates, Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams spent a decade firmly restating that she was no solo act. They even sold shirts saying, “Paramore Esta Una Banda.”
But the band themselves evolved so much — from pop-punk to Wall of Sound productions to Paradise Garage-inspired ‘80s, and with a lineup change on every record — that this belated rebranding and its curveballs won’t shock anyone. (It’s coproduced with Paramore guitarist Taylor York.)
Yet it’s Williams’ biggest leap from previous territory.
Her singing has absorbed the hushed shrugs of Billie Eilish, sung over the high-mixed drums of clattering latter-day Radiohead. Unusual R&B-influenced song shapes invite ‘90s folk-jazz comparisons. A funky Suzanne Vega?
Two winners, “Taken” and “Sugar on the Rim,” have the mark of Erykah Badu and Lady Gaga, respectively, while the broken beat of early highlight “Cinnamon” has roots in St. Vincent.
Give a onetime genius for obvious hooks her props. She’s gone subtle without turning dull.
— Dan Weiss
Kamala & The Child People
(Self released ****)
Songs from the Quarantine (a work in progress)
(Self released ****)
South Africa-born Philadelphia multi-hyphenate Andrew Lipke is different things to different audiences.
Renowned for his Zeppelin cover act Get the Led Out, Lipke is also an adroit chamber-pop self-practitioner whose harmonic range would wow Bacharach and McCartney. Capable of forlorn topicality as a singer-songwriter (as on 2011’s The Plague), Lipke moonlights, too, as an orchestral arranger for string ensembles and opera companies.
His two new, self-released albums manage to be even more divergent.
Lipke’s decade-in-the-making Kamala & The Child People is based on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. It starts as a hypnotic, Philip Glass-ian opera with heavenly harps and oxygenated choirs. Then come strummy folk, crunching metal, jungle rhythms, eerie musique concrete, and slack-key country. Winsome vocals include an Ozzy-like scowl on “Some Kinda Disease.”
The album is somehow an elegantly eclectic, avant-pop epic that manages to be hummable.
While readying Kamala’s release, Lipke got trapped in pandemic mode. His Songs from the Quarantine is off-the-cuff, self-referential cabaret pop, with Wainwright-like fits of fancy. (Rufus or Loudon — take your pick.)
Along with the hokey, homespun “Happy Quarantine,” Lipke cooks up pastoral country-rock (“You Oughta Be Proud”), while offering the pixieish “Bored” to his daughters to sing.
Quarantine is as simple and precocious as Kamala is complex and ruminative — and both are thoroughly engaging.