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Published: 2011/04/12
by Brian Robbins

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Here We Rest

Lightning Rod Records

“Codeine,” the fourth track on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album Here We Rest, is so stick-in-your-brain good that it demands a bit of revisionist history to explain its existence.

Where does a song like this come from? Well, maybe – just maybe

It’s December 1969 and The Rolling Stones touch down at Northwest Alabama Regional Airport looking badly torn and frayed from a hard month of touring the US. The needle on the band’s collective fuel gauge has gone so far below “E” that it’s bent back over on itself, but no matter: the Stones are on a mission. They are headed into Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to lay down some tracks.

The session is an absolute stealth operation; other than the Stones and their immediate crew, the only other humans who know about any of this are the minimum of Muscle Shoals staff needed to make things happen and pianist Jim Dickinson, who’s been asked to sit in. Oh – and Gram Parsons (this is where the revisionist part begins to take over, kids), who has obviously been tipped off by buddy Keith Richards that the Stones were descending on Muscle Shoals. Besides whatever else he has in his pockets, Parsons brings an authentic country sensibility to the session … and Richards is counting on that.

The Muscle Shoals vibe takes over and there’s a surge of energy that runs through the band, beat-up and beat-down as they are. They work through the basic tracks for three new songs: “Brown Sugar”, “You Gotta Move”, and “Wild Horses”, which features some gorgeous piano by Dickinson.

The playback of “Wild Horses” has just faded when someone mentions that the band needs to be heading back to the airport. California and the gig at Altamont Speedway await.

And that’s when Keith lurches to his feet from his perch atop a little Fender Princeton Reverb where he’s been sitting in a huddle with Gram Parsons for an hour or so. Parsons is hunched over and grinning, scribbling something in a notebook, while Keith is brandishing a Gibson Hummingbird in one hand and lighting a cigarette with the other.

“Fuck Altamont, baby – we’ve got this song …” He begins to strum a G-D-Em-C chord sequence and then pauses: “What’s that cat’s name? Clements – Vassar Clements … he played fiddle with Jim and Jesse McReynolds. That’s who we need, man. Somebody call him, right? Fly him, drive him – whatever, baby … we’ve got this song …”

And rather than fly to California, the Stones and Gram Parsons stayed at Muscle Shoals and cut a track named “Codeine” – the fifth song on Side A of Sticky Fingers, right after the unexpected jam of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and just before the blueslurch of “You Gotta Move”.

And Altamont never happened.

Ah, if only … but the fact of the matter is that even though “Codeine” is a Jason Isbell original, it is truly a song that could’ve been on Sticky Fingers. In reality, you’ll find it on Here We Rest. (And, of course, that’s not really the late Vassar Clements on fiddle; that would be the very talented Amanda Shires who appears throughout the album. She and Abby Owens also guest on background vocals.)

“Codeine” is a nitty, gritty, bouncy little breakup tune with a hook-you-solidly-in-the-brainpan sing-along chorus:

One of her friends
Has taken her in
And given her codeine

The song’s roots may reach way deep into the soft dirt beneath the trailer, but it takes a lurch sideways when the drugs take hold (ala “Dead Flowers”), only to be saved by a little bit of soul. Whose idea it was originally, I don’t know, but let’s credit 400 Unit bassist Jimbo Hart for getting the deed done: the first time the band swings into the pre-chorus at the 1:16 mark, Hart moves from a more traditional-sounding back porch bounce to a bass line that walks up the neck in a strut that’s fueled by pure Muscle Shoals soul. A pleasant rhythm that could almost lapse into cliché in lesser hands is skillfully shaped into something that’s unexpected and just right.

It may be a small moment to some, but worth noting as it sums up a lot of what is right about Here We Rest: between Isbell’s always-great-but-now-even-better songwriting skills and the interpretations of his work by the 400 Unit as a band, Here We Rest is a major achievement in Jason Isbell’s career.

The album opens with the ache of “Alabama Pines”, an ode to going home – one way or another. Isbell’s ability to get inside the character comes through in the matter-of-fact desolation of the lyrics. “I hardly even know my name anymore,” sings Isbell. “When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.” Be prepared: he delivers knockout punches throughout Here We Rest effortlessly with writing that has an impact the first time through and still delivers upon repeated listenings.

“Save It For Sunday” is the kind of truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that could only be delivered from a barstool, while “We’ve Met” might be mistaken for a classically-bittersweet John Hiatt tune with Isbell laying down some totally Sonny Landreth-style shimmer on the slide guitar.

The 400 Unit itself has only gotten better with time, as well. The key seems to be the fact that none of the four ever overplay; they’re good at what they do and they’re tasteful in how they go about doing it. Take Derry deBorja, for instance: his keyboard work on Here We Rest is the musical equivalent of the sous chef who reaches over the shoulders of the head cook, flicking little bits of tastiness into the pot. Or Browan Lollar on guitar, who meshes so well with Isbell’s playing that it’s tough to tell who’s doing what sometimes. Meanwhile, bassist Hart and drummer Chad Gamble are masters of reshaping a tune’s underpinnings without ever threatening the groove. Catch Gamble’s little sideways stutter just before the final chorus in “Codeine” – or his tumble-drunk New Orleans second-line-style drumming on the romp of “Never Could Believe”, where everyone just winds up and lets it fly. The final honk of Isbell’s amp on “Never Could Believe” has barely died when the ultra-smooth-and-sweet “Heart On A String” glides in, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that these folks were raised on Muscle Shoals soul.

You might have felt that the imaginary scenario at the beginning of this piece was an unnecessary detour, but the fact of the matter is this: when it comes to understanding Jason Isbell and his music, that bit of revisionist history has more to do with things than any of the labels usually applied to the man.

Here We Rest isn’t the work of a “former Drive-By Trucker” – it’s the work of a damn good musician and his hellacious band.

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