sun 05/12/2021

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Georgia Blue | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Georgia Blue

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Georgia Blue

Feted southern US singer fires out an often tasty fund-raiser of cover versions

Southern-grown blooms

Jason Isbell is a bigger noise on the other side of the Atlantic than he is in the UK but his last three albums have, nonetheless, bothered the middle-regions of the British album charts. He’s built a critically lauded career with his band The 400 Unit since leaving Drive-By Truckers a decade-and-a-half ago, merging country with rock and various southern US styles.

His latest is a covers album benefit for three non-profit social justice organizations, including Black Lives Matter, and is, he says, a celebration of Georgia “turning blue” (voting Democrat) in last year’s US election. Happily it also contains seams of gold.

Not a conventional Isbell album, it may feature his guitar playing, some of it stunning, but much of the singing is by guest artists. The underlying concept is that all the artists covered have a connection with Georgia. Things start and end, then, with REM but the opening “Nightswimming” (sung by Isbell) is unpersuasive, too pleadingly close to the original in tone, despite impressive instrumentation from banjo and mandolin dons Béla Fleck and Chris Thile.

Georgia Blue soon hits its stride, though, peaking early with a vital take on Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style” sung by 400 Unit fiddle-player (and Isbell’s wife) Amanda Shires. It has a slow-burning moody power, drone guitar playing against violin and a real groove, like “Gimme Shelter” vibes sprinkled subtly into a My Baby or Jefferson Airplane song.

It's not all as good. There are moments of Memphis southern soul that are passable rather than riveting, and some uninteresting straight rock, but there’s enough here to rev most engines: the harmony-strewn downtempo grunge-country epic take on Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears”, featuring Julien Baker and Brandi Carlile; the striking guitar on feminist anthem “The Truth” (originally by Precious Bryant); the 12 minute Grateful Dead-style jam on Allman Brothers Band’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed; the likeable bluesy reworking of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, well fronted by Brittney Spencer.

Georgia Blue is not consistent throughout but the best of it is undeniably tasty.

Below: Listen to all 12+ minutes of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's version of the Allman Brothers Band's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"

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