With their latest self-titled release, sometime Drive By Trucker Jason Isbell and his new group, the 400 Unit, present a disc full of literate, faux-soulful, countrified Folk Blues Rock. While it isn’t without its moments — the pretty lushnoise bit in “Sunstroke” shows at least some penchant for experimentation — the album is overall a monochromatic snoozefest that tries far too hard for poignancy and just ends up sounding mediocre.
Here we find the band on a retread of terrain fully explored and left fallow by other stubbly-faced white-guy rockers like Son Volt, Whiskeytown and early Wilco — bands that traveled down that ol’ lonesome road of twangy, soul-baring barroom self-pity way back in the early ‘90s.
And they did it with much more panache.
In keeping with the pre-established AltCountry aesthetic set down by said bands, Isbell and the Unit have the formula down pat: They offer the listener molasses-paced, Rhodes-piano-inflected, lazily plucked mini-epics that feature pained storytelling delivered in a gravelly voice that ranges from solemnly hushed to loudly earnest. The requisite tracks like “However Long” and “Good,” with its key lyric, “I can’t make myself do right/ On Friday night,” show up here and there to barf some obvious, up-tempo Radio Rock into your face. Isbell even tries his hand at soul (complete with horn section!) on “No Choice in the Matter,” and the results are not pretty. Unfortunately, this collection of songs tries desperately to convince you it’s got a lot of heart but suffers from a severe lack of character and creativity.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is the sound of a comfy band without much to say and without an interesting way of saying it. Grade: C-
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