Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Here We Rest

Inspiration strikes on the third solo album from the former Drive-By Trucker, but not as often as you might like.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Here We Rest

Label: Lightning Rod
US Release Date: 2011-04-12
UK Release Date: 2011-04-18

My friend Ryan, who also pays attention to this kind of thing, said that Jason Isbell could always be counted upon to deliver two to four classic songs per album. As it happens, this is true regardless of how many songs he ends up releasing. It used to be that Isbell was in a full band with a few other noted songwriters; two to four good ones were all we needed. On his own, it gets a little tougher to come up with 45-minutes of sustained brilliance.

"Alabama Pines", "Go It Alone", and "Stopping By" are the keepers on Here We Rest. Do you have iTunes? Good. Go find these. "Alabama Pines" may be the most overtly country tune Isbell has recorded. It's a tale of heartbreak and isolation set to a heaven-sent melody. Then the fiddles come in and all is right with the world. "Go It Alone" is a brooding, minor key rocker with a killer groove and a huge, redemptive chorus -- in short, everything you might hope for in a Jason Isbell rocker. "Stopping By" has a gorgeous cascading riff and yearning, uncertain harmonies that perfectly match its lyrics about a tentative reconciliation between estranged family members.

Then there are the other ones. Understand that Jason Isbell is far too talented a songwriter to put out a song with no redeeming value, and many of these songs have moments of genuine inspiration. Take, for example, "We've Met" -- it's got a cool part where the melody starts falling on the offbeat, and boasts at least one stellar couplet in "We thought we'd find the answers / In the troubadours and dancers." In an ideal world, though, he would have married these elements to a more memorable verse; as it is, these are fleeting moments in a relatively unremarkable stretch of acoustic guitars and tasteful Fender Rhodes embellishments.

"Codeine" also inspires wishes for what might have been. Its opening image of a crappy bar band struggling through Hendrix covers comes from the same well of brilliant detail that gave us that 302 Mach One in green, and its chorus ("One of my friends has taken her in / And given her codeine") is both surprising and addictively melodic. Too bad later verses lapse into cheesy talk-singing, which gives the listener plenty of time to reflect on how the two parts of the song actually have nothing to do with each other.

Later, "Never Could Believe" and "Heart on a String" find the 400 Unit lapsing into sincere but uninspired genre exercises (New Orleans-style blues and country soul, respectively -- two styles that need to sound effortless to work, and don't here). The album closes with "Tour of Duty", which benefits from its stripped-down, mandolin-based arrangement, but by now the damage has been done, and Isbell doesn't do himself any favors by returning to the subject of soldiers returning home in varying states of disrepair. It's clearly a topic that matters to him, and one with great artistic potential, but Isbell mined this territory pretty comprehensively in "Dress Blues" and "Soldiers Get Strange" on his last two records. It can't help but suffer from the comparison, and coming after a fallow stretch does little to increase the listener's sympathy or patience.

I feel meaner than I want to be. It's not a bad album. There are enough good moments on this record (and, as I noted above, a few good songs) to believe that Isbell is still in full command of his considerable talents; it's just that he seems to be spreading himself too thin. There's a 30-second instrumental here called "The Ballad of Nobeard" -- if that doesn't betray a need to fill up time, it's hard to imagine what would. Maybe he needs a year off or a collaborator, hard to say. It's easy to believe that Isbell has a classic record in him, even if this isn't it. One day, firing on all cylinders, he could make people forget what band he used to be in and focus on this one.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.