Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Georgia Blue (Southeastern) | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021  

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Georgia Blue

Southeastern

Oct 21, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


On last year’s anthemic “Be Afraid,” Jason Isbell sang, “And if your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice/To sing a cover when we need a battle cry.” But sometimes, a collection of cover songs can be the battle cry itself, as Isbell and the 400 Unit claim with Georgia Blue—a covers album in support of voting rights in Georgia where the 2020 presidential election came down to the thinnest of margins. The album is a joy to listen to, collecting some of Isbell and his collaborators’ favorite songs to come out of the Peach State. (It’s not a definitive list by any means, as Isbell told a Ryman Auditorium crowd on release weekend, “I wanted to cover OutKast, but that wouldn’t turn out very good.”) While most of the arrangements here aren’t revelatory, they give us a delightful opportunity to hear one of americana’s greatest lyricists for his other strengths—a careful curator and collaborator, an impressive guitarist and vocalist.

There was never any doubt that Isbell had musical chops. However, hearing him turn from his conversational southern rustle to a spirited bellow on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is breathtaking. Similarly the band’s rendition of the Allman Brothers’ extended jazz-infused jam “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is a showcase of the entire band’s musical deftness.

At the center of the album’s homage is R.E.M., a band Isbell tweeted in 2017 “had a very specific type of southernness that aligns with my own experience in so many ways.” Appropriately then, Georgia Blue is bookended by covers of the Athens band—”Nightswimming” is given a gorgeous Appalachian treatment with tingling mandolin and banjo picking from Chris Thile and Belá Fleck, respectively, while John Paul White joins for an acoustic, but urgent take on 1985 single “Driver 8.” As a cherry on top, Isbell takes on Michael Stipe once more, adding his voice to the beautiful Brandi Carlile/Julien Baker cover of Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears” which features the murmuring alternative rock legend.
But Isbell and co. didn’t just pick Georgia legends to highlight here. And the obvious cratedigging at work on this record is one of its strengths. Adia Victoria offers a heartfelt rendition of largely under-celebrated blues musician Precious Bryant’s “The Truth.” Sadler Vaden leads a roaring update to southern rockers Drivin’ N Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue,” one whose dueling guitar riffs promises to be a fan favorite for years to come. (Calls for the song were loud inside the Ryman days after release).

What’s striking beyond the excellent song choices is Isbell’s choice to sit in the background for much of the record, singing lead vocal on only six of the album’s 13 songs. Elsewhere, Amanda Shires brings a mystery, intrigue, and an eerie fiddle hook to Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style.” And while Brittney Spencer’s take on the Gladys Knight classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” is played pretty safe, her soulful control on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” is transformative. As the song progresses, Isbell appropriately follows her lead, echoing her powerful vocal riffs with his yearning guitar. It’s here that the album’s battle cry—made in joy, melody, and harmony—resounds and hopes to tip the scales ever so slightly toward a world beyond this present “White Man’s World.” (www.jasonisbell.com)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10



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