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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Something More Than Free

The nextr Grammy-winning album I'm taking a listen to is Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free, which won the Grammy for Best Americana Album. Now, you may wonder what "Americana" is, as I did. It was separated from the Contemporary Folk category a few years ago, with Folk encompassing acoustic music and Americana electric. But my question, upon listening to this album, is what separates American from Country (a category unto itself), because this record sure sounds Country to me.

Isbell used to be a member of Drive-By Truckers, a band I sort of heard of, but couldn't tell you anything about. I do know that Isbell writes nice, pretty songs that don't sound Americana to me--that term suggests gritty blues, bluegrass, or other roots music. I'm not putting this record down--it's a nice listen, but the production is polished and thoroughly contemporary.

I gave the album several listens and where Isbell's strength lies is as a lyricist. Sometimes you don't hear the lyric before the third or fourth time you've heard the song. His lyrics also match the song very well. For instance, in "24 Frames," we hear:

"You thought God was an architect,
But now you know
He's something like a pipe bomb
Ready to blow
And everything you've built that's all for show
Goes up in flames
In 24 frames"

Following that last line, there is a lovely fiddle line that gives the song an extra oomph that makes it memorable. This also works in "How to Forget," which after the refrain contains a three-note riff that sounds very much like the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" notes of the Beatles' "She Loves You."

The best song on the record is "Speed Trap Town," a tour de force of poetic imagery. I'd like to quote the whole thing, but I'll settle for this:

"Doctors said Daddy wouldn't make it a year,
But the holidays are over and he's still hear.
How long can they keep you in the ICU?
Veins in the skin like a faded tattoo.
Was a tough state trooper 'til a decade back
When that girl that wasn't Momma caused his heart attack.
He didn't care about us when he was walking around
Just pulling people over in a speed trap town."

Something More Than Free is a nice record with some great lyrics. Musically it doesn't take much chances and sounds like typical Nashville to me. But that may be a selling point to others. I just don't think it's "Americana."

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