One of my big regrets from last year was not being able to see Jason Isbell when he came through Winnipeg last year. I also regret that I have not yet listened to his 2017 album with the 400 Unit, the well regarded Nashville Sound. The Nashville resident put out Reunions in mid-May which was preceded by three singles. The first of those, “Be Afraid” starts of murky but then a drum kicks before the track explodes in the chorus where Isbell let’s everyone know, “we won’t shut up and sing”.
First track “What’ve I Done to Help” is a powerful song about being saved and repeats the title throughout it’s seven minutes. “Dreamsicle” has a more country feel about a kid growing up in a rough situation and dreaming of leaving home when he’s 18. On “Only the Children”, Isbell sings that “heavens wasted on the dead” and about addiction on livelier “It Gets Easier”.
Several songs speak about family including “Overseas” that touches on the life of two parents/musicians. With his demons always close at hand Isbell sings, “saw you in our daughter’s eyes last night when she caught me in a lie”. The album closes with a song for his daughter in “Letting You Go”. Isbell is full of contradictions both personally and musically. A country star (Reunions hit the top of the US country chart), he is not afraid of speaking out about injustices on a must follow Twitter account. He’s funny and sentimental, cool yet nostalgic, country but rock. These contradictions help make for another fine release.
Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin met in 1975 and went on to form Siouxsie and the Banshees, debuting a year later at the 100 Club Punk Festival with Sid Vicious on drums. With Siouxsie handling vocal duties and Severin on bass, the duo would later add guitarist John McKay and Kenny Morris on drums. The band’s first release was the Steve Lillywhite produced single “Hong Kong Garden”. One of the landmark releases of the punk era peaked at #7 in the UK singles chart. A few months later in November of 1978, the band released their debut album, The Scream, also produced by Lillywhite.
First track “Pure” features a spare guitar with disembodied voices before one of the album’s finest songs “Jigsaw Feeling” ups the ante with a stunning mix of punk, metal, industrial and goth while Siouxsie sings of “My eyes are doing summersaults/staring at my shoe”. The staccato vocals of “Carcass” and hard guitar edge do little to hide the pop melody including handclaps. Ending side A, the band reaches back a decade earlier for inspiration in a powerful cover of The Beatles “Helter Skelter” climaxing with Siouxsie exclaiming, “you may be a lover but you ain’t no fucking dancer!” before a cymbal crash brings it all to an end.
The only track from here to appear on the Once Upon a Time: The Singles compilation is “Mirage”. The accelerated track is driven by an acoustic guitar where Siouxsie’s “limbs are like palm trees/swaying in the breeze”. In stark contrast, “Metal Postcard (Mitageisen)” is cold and militant. Having originated in the London suburb of Bromley, “Suburban Relapse” revisits life outside the capital centre where the character suddenly snaps while doing the mundane chores, the music ups the tension throughout. The album closes with the ambitious “Switch” where Siouxsie sounds like Grace Slick and the music changes on virtually every verse over it’s nearly seven minutes.
The music that young Londoners created in the late 70s known as punk still reverberates throughout the music industry as new generations keep finding it. Siouxsie and the Banshee’s debut that was released just one year after the Sex Pistols is already moving the sound in new directions. Morris’ drumming is a highlight throughout, along with Severin they create a solid base for McKay’s guitar to shine. Siouxsie is a true icon who’s voice here already sounds developed. The Scream is a true classic album of the late 1970s.
Like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this is another Bob Dylan album that sat on my shelf for years that I had not fully listened to until this year. Moving on from the colour of the Freewheelin’ album cover, The Times They Are A-Changin’ released in 1964 features just Dylan in a workman’s shirt bathed in green sepia. It’s back to business…
There are a number of gritty stories told, the first being “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” that paints a grim picture of a father killing his staving family. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a sad recounting of an African American barmaid who was killed at the hands of William Zatzinger in a drunken rage. Billy went to jail but then lived until he was 69 years old. Carroll’s 9 children grew up without a mom. “With God On Our Side” goes through several conflicts with each warring nation thinking that they are in the right and that God is with them.
In the vein of the more things change, the more they stay the same. “North Country Blues” tells of struggling families in the American iron ore business losing their jobs as the work moves to cheaper South America. “Only a Pawn In Their Game” is a powerful track about the murder of Edgar Evers and how poor Caucasians are used as a pawn for white politicians to whip up anger at minorities. Such was Dylan’s reach at that time that he sang this at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The title track is the one of the classic folk songs from the 60s and another Dylan track that seems like it was written a long time before that. “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/And don’t criticize what you can’t understand”. A simple acoustic strummed song with important words and big ideas.
More so there than on the first two albums, it is a bit easier to see why the kids would later chasten Dylan for going electric. The power of Dylan with just his acoustic guitar singing dark stories happening in their own country while others their age danced around the clock. It is often a bleak outlook and by the end it’s a bit grim but it is as essential listening today as it was back then.