Jason Isbell, "Something More Than Free" (Southeastern Records). Amid the digitization of our musical past and present, it's easy enough to find honest rural voices. Browse, drag, drop and within moments the collected work of Townes Van Zandt, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Lucinda Williams can be running on shuffle. Isbell's terrific new album, which comes out July 17, is as solid as they come and would fit right into that playlist.
With lyrics so precisely placed you'd think he used tweezers to set them, the 11 songs on "Something More Than Free" are sturdy enough to hold emotional tonnage. The album's first single, "24 Frames," tackles big truths and bigger realities: "You thought God was an architect, now you know/ He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow," he sings in the chorus. "Flagship" is set in an old hotel bar, with a couple just as weathered: "She's got nothing left to learn about his heart/ They're sitting there a thousand miles apart."
As a lyricist, Isbell is in peak form here. He's taken the lessons he learned first as a member of the Drive by Truckers and through four solo albums to craft work with boundless insight. Guitars, strings, keyboards, mellotrons and particularly inventive rhythms move in harmony. Isbell's wife, the talented singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, harmonizes and adds fiddle.
Like Bruce Springsteen, Isbell's focus is on blue-collar issues that reveal universal truths. The best is the title track, which moves from a meditation on a hard day's work to an exploration of its consequences. "When I get home from work I'll call up all my friends/ And we'll go bust up something beautiful we have to build again," he sings. Isbell bemoans nights spent dreaming of "drowning in the dirt," of being too tired to go to church. "The hammer needs the nail, the poor man's up for sale," he concludes. "Guess I'm doing what I'm on this earth to do."
Bernard Fevre, "Cosmos 2043" (Anthology Recordings). When French synth composer Fevre's work from the 1970s first resurfaced in the early '00s, many thought the reissue a ruse. So strange and futuristic was the self-titled "Black Rebel Disco Club" record that some deduced the music had to have been created by a contemporary artist pulling a prank. Nope.
Fevre's music throughout the '70s, recently reissued on "Cosmos 2043," "Suspense" and "Black Devil Disco Club," was built when he says it was and features strange beat-based synthesizer instrumentals that suggest the sounds of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder. The best is "Cosmos 2043," which imagines a futuristic cosmic journey through songs like "Space Team," "Satellite 33" and "Stars Away." So retro you can almost hear the circuitry calculating, Fevre's music nonetheless has the vibe of now.