Album Reviews: Bill Callahan, Southeast Engine, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Bill Callahan

Apocalypse

(Drag City, 4/5)

Bill Callahan is a man who may walk slowly, but each of his steps are carefully calculated, and taken with the utmost certainty. His new record, Apocalypse, is the fourth release under his own name.

 

For much of the 1990's, Mr. Callahan released a number of expertly written albums as Smog, culminating with his excellent A River Ain't Too Much To Love. After shedding his Smog moniker,  Mr. Callahan returned with a rather pleasing set called Woke On A Whaleheart, which was followed by the brilliant Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (one of my favorite albums of 2009). After touring for that record, he released his first live album, Rough Travel For A Rare Thing, and then receded, until now.

 

Apocalypse moves on from Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle left off, and it leads the listener off into an equally compelling terrain. It kicks, buckles, and whips with the opener "Dover", which eases off into the ghostly coast of "Baby's Breath", only to then soar with the electrifying bounce of "America". From there, the record continues to reveal itself slowly with it's creative use of understated instrumentation and lyrical emotion.

 

It is as an earthy, simplistic, and poetic album that contemplates the American west. Callahan, who continues to deliver his straightforward sing-speak, allows his lyrical verses to lie bare here, much like the instrumentation deceivingly sounds. But neither aspect is as simple as they each seem, much like the western landscape. 

 

Bill Callahan is an alluring mystery, and within his body of work, he consistently has kept himself well-guarded, and well hidden, just enough to create a beautiful and magnetic tension that is easy to be drawn to, as it is to be swept up by. Apocolpypse continues this trend, and certainly rewards. To a casual listen, it can almost sound effortless, but like the best of Mr. Callahan's past albums, Apocalypse is filled with calculated restraint and a purposeful minimalism. The music and words of Apocalypse finds a brilliant, and tragically under-appreciated songwriter ascending higher completely on his own terms. Not to be missed.

 

 


Southeast Engine

Canary

(Misra, 3/29)

 

There will always be a place in my heart for Athens, Ohio. Athens is located in southeastern Ohio, and is a short drive to West Virginia. Being a native East Coaster who left New England for something different for higher education, I spent almost four years living in Athens before moving to New York City. My time in Athens was the breath of fresh air, and the extended leave I needed to decompress from the northeast. It introduced me to the music and people of Appalachia, which took hold of me then, and has stayed with me since I left.

 

Southeast Engine hails from Athens. After listening to their new record, Canary, it not only makes me a little misty for the small town where I went to graduate school, but for the good people, local downtown characters, and the vibrant music scene that is nestled in that little town that treated me so damn well. The young boys of Southeast Engine have crafted a haunting, timeless, and at times, astoundingly vibrant record of Depression-era tales of their own home in Appalachia.

 

Lyrically, Canary sidesteps literary pretension, and is so dense with genuine sentiment and detailed prose throughout the set that it begs for another spin each time it ends. The heart and guts of the collection focuses on hard times, depressed places, and the people weathering the era despite the grim looks of it all. The boys showcase their musical range by matching the authenticity of the stories with a full-band treatment that bends itself to suit the needs of each individual tune. It is a testament to how well each tune stands alone, as well as how they all fit together.

 

Blistering gallops, sparse ballads, anthemic barn-raisers, and solemn laments are all here. Southeast Engine takes us up over mountains, across the waters of rivers and lakes, and deep down into valleys below. The result is an album by a band that draws from the area's musical roots: bluegrass, county, and mountain music, while using their voices to create a work that feels loose, young, energetic, and respectful of it's past- both geographically and musically. Canary is a rewarding and highly enjoyable record by a band to watch out for. Catch them soon before they get huge.

 

 


Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Here We Rest

(Lightning Rod, 4/12)

 

This week Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit release their excellent new album Here We Rest on Lightning Rod Records. The new record finds Mr. Isbell and his crew sounding more assured and confident than ever before, while willing to boldly expand their sound in a variety of new directions. The result is the finest and most cohesive album by Mr. Isbell & The 400 Unit. It is an effort that is easy to revisit and a hard one to push aside. 

 

As on previous efforts, the singer-songwriter once gain looks within himself to express some rich autobiographical experiences, but this time, he also confidently steps into the well-worn shoes of some fleshed-out characters, and spins tales of the everyman. Sonically, Here We Rest includes a satisfying range of country-rock, as well as sparse acoustic numbers, full-band rockers, and R & B influenced jams. 

 

For anyone who has followed Mr. Isbell since his days with the Drive-By Truckers, maybe you have shared my enjoyment of his previous albums, while also wishing for deeper fulfillment. Well my friends, this is the album I have been waiting for Mr. Isbell and his boys to deliver, and I am glad to help bring the good news that it definitely brings the goods.

 

While the record may not be "re-inventing the wheel" as Mr. Isbell recently stated in an interview I did with him recently, Here We Rest is an album filled with solid tunes that are both well-written and well-performed. I'd recommend this album to fans of the alt-country staples like The Drive-By Truckers, Whiskeytown, and The Jayhawks.

 

Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue, and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris plays the mandolin and drums, and teaches woodworking. 

You can follow his posts here on No Depression, on his own blog: the Uprooted Music Revue at http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com/, on Facebook, and on twitter.

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Tags: 400, Apocalypse, Bill, Callahan, Canary, Engine, Here, Isbell, Jason, Rest, More…Southeast, Unit, We

Comment by kate on April 12, 2011 at 4:32pm
Good to see Southeast Engine getting some love and attention! Back in 2007 they played the radio show I co-engineered and they were incredibly sweet and easygoing, not to mention talented. Just so easy to work with. We liked the set so much we rebroadcast it at least once, to give them some more attention. I think the archives are broken, but you might be able to hear it here: http://bsrlive.com/playlists/live-block/20929

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.