Another week with three excellent records, courtesy of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Rufus Wainwright featuring Brandi Carlile, and Brandy Clark.
“Middle of the Morning”
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Written by Jason Isbell
KJC: Isbell and the Unit’s second release from the upcoming Weathervanes album is a few cuts above its predecessor. The switch to the first person point of view makes this window into mental illness more visceral, with Isbell’s pain palpable: “I step outside in the middle of the morning and the roses hear the scream.”
The change of producer is paying dividends here. Isbell’s wailing vocal has its urgency matched by the rock-flavored arrangement. There’s always a danger in an artist self-producing, but the signs so far are encouraging. Isbell has finally harnessed the energy and musicality of his live shows on a studio recording.
If the material on the rest of the album is as strong as this, Weathervanes will be one of Isbell’s stronger efforts. B+
JK: When I reviewed his early solo material for Slant, there were some folks online who were very sure I was out of my mind for suggesting that Jason Isbell was a sneaky great singer whose vocal talents happened to be eclipsed by the once-in-a-generation quality of his songwriting. “Middle of the Morning” has me feeling at least a little smug for having been right all along. Isbell’s performance here is among his very best, with his languid phrasing and purposeful dynamics heightening the sense of someone ill at-ease in his own mind.
As for the song? Mid-tier Isbell shames damn near everyone else in the game, and this one has a strong premise– and, as Kevin notes above, improves upon “Death Wish” by pivoting back to a first-person narrator– but lacks the memorable images or perfectly-turned phrases of his very best work. The third pre-release track from Weathervanes, “Cast Iron Skillet,” gets back to that business, leaving “Middle of the Morning” as a solid B+.
ZK: The constant reminder with Jason Isbell’s work is that, while one can silence a demon for a time, they can never kill it for good. So with “Middle of the Morning,” we have yet another Isbell song to grapple with mental health and struggle to maintain even a facade of strength. It calls back to “Anxiety” in how even an average scene like this can be utterly impossible to navigate when one can’t escape their own head, so I get why it’s played with a sense of unfortunate normalcy in its smoother rollick.
Of course, that also means it lacks the same immediate punch of Isbell’s best work to grapple with these same frustrations. His howling hook certainly adds a ton of the necessary potency to make this work, but the song itself often feels too polished and meanders without being too technically impressive. It’s fine, just not quite among his most gripping work. B
“Down in the Willow Garden”
Rufus Wainwright featuring Brandi Carlile
JK: Rufus Wainwright’s deep appreciation for the American musical canon has, over the course of his career, skewed more heavily toward pop standards, musical theater, and vaudeville-style showmanship. He’s at his best when those influences inform a more progressive brand of pop. Still, his penchant for bygone eras shouldn’t make it a surprise that he’d eventually release an album of traditional folk tunes.
What’s surprising is how well he adapts his distinctive vocal style– other than LeAnn Rimes, there’s no one else who emotes more effectively without enunciating a single consonant sound– to such a conventional and often-covered murder ballad. Wainwright sounds fantastic on this, with Carlile reigning in her powerhouse theatrics to provide a lovely harmony vocal. That two icons within the queer popular music space would collaborate on a lilting ballad on which a man poisons, stabs, and then finally drowns the woman he loves in a fit of rage is, in and of itself, a subversion of the form. Ultimately, it’s that element of provocation, along with the loveliness of Wainwright’s and Carlile’s performance, that overcomes the familiarity of the song. A-
ZK: You know, there’s actually a surprising history to murder ballads in bluegrass, and they almost always involve some sort of sick, twisted fantasy-driven scenario of a guy murdering his lover for no apparent reason.
This, well, checks off that exact box, but I probably do prefer Rufus Wainwright and Brandi Carlile’s more measured, darker take that at least suggests some sense of regret on the narrator’s part. Carlile’s added harmony is subtle but appreciated to potentially speak for poor old Rose Connolly, too. Makes it feel rooted more in a Carter Family doom-and-gloom version we never got from them, which is a positive. A-
KJC: What Rufus Wainwright and Brandi Carlile are doing here is important.
Old murder ballads like “Down in the Willow Garden” were passed down from generation to generation before there was the technology to record them. Since it was first put on record, it’s been covered by successive generations that essentially replicate what musicians were doing before their own versions could be immortalized: keeping the song and the story alive, and approaching it through their own artistic lens, so they preserve and build upon tradition.
All that being said, I went through four distinct obsessions with legendary older artists as a child, before finally turning my attention to contemporary music. The third obsession was the Everly Brothers. So I am deeply familiar with their version of it, and this recording is so similar that it’s almost superfluous to me.
See, having a woman do the harmony vocal changes the way the song hits. It makes it even more haunting, as if the murdered lover is mourning alongside her murderer. It adds a new dimension to it. It’s not quite as revolutionary, say, as having the girl in “Banks of the Ohio” pick up the knife herself, but it’s still pretty cool. B+
“She Smoked in the House”
Written by Brandy Clark
ZK: As someone who had a close relationship with his own grandmother, I liked this almost immediately, even despite Clark’s experience being fairly different from mine. That’s why specificity matters in songwriting, though, because it’s not so much about the details as it is a personal pouring of the heart that leads to a shared connection with all through the moments in between. And there’s few better than Clark to get a conversation like that going. Now I’m thinking about how my own grandmother listened to country music on the radio and refused to throw anything out. And like Clark, I’m thinking back on happy memories while also wishing I had that time back.
I appreciated “Buried” well enough and am glad Clark is stripping it all back for her upcoming project, but I’m also glad that there’s a bit more here musically, with the liquid touches of acoustics and that subtle but rollicking accompanying riff. It captures that tender but bittersweet feeling all too well. A
KJC: My grandmother lived in our basement apartment growing up. I remember watching the smoke of her Parliament cigarettes twirl up into the air, making parallel designs with the curls of fly paper dangling from the ceiling before fading away. The cigarettes made me cough. The cigarettes took her life.
Yet “She Smoked in the House” doesn’t make me feel sad. It makes me feel grateful for that weird overlap that exists between the ending years of a grandparent’s life and the beginning years of a grandchild’s. We overlapped for sixteen years. She’s been in the ground since 1996.
But I can close my eyes and picture her at her dining room table, cigarette in one hand, nursing a cup of tea and picking at a slice of Entenmann’s Crumb Cake. Those images have faded from my mind with time. But when I play “She Smoked in the House,” I can see and hear and touch and smell it all again.
It’s a remarkable piece of songwriting, but much like Jason Isbell, her remarkable gifts as a songwriter overshadow what a fucking great singer Brandy Clark is. She can emote as well as anyone of her generation. What a blessing for us that these songs and this singer are a package deal. A
JK: I will say that I had a very complicated relationship with my grandmother until the last few years of her life. So when Clark sings, “And I hate cigarettes / But I miss all that smoke,” the complexity of that relationship comes fully to bear, and I’m just completely wrecked by this song.
What’s striking is that there are very few of the details Clark sings about here that map directly to my own experience, but the way she employs those details to explore the nuances of family ties is simply phenomenal. The stripped-down arrangement foregrounds the sincerity and genuine love in her performance, and this might just be the best thing she’s ever committed to record. A
Looks like Brandy hit it out of the park once again. I agree with Zack about the paradox of specificity in songwriting; while the details are certainly unique, the intimate way that Brandy expressed them can transport the listener to their own personal story.
I lost my paternal grandmother back in 1995, and the other on my mom’s side passed not too long ago in 2019. Though they’re gone, I can never forget the little details about each of them: how the former would peel grapes for my toddler self, how the latter’s chicken curry is just the right amount of spicy. Thank you Brandy, and thanks to all the reviewers for your thoughtful critique!