The Boom-or-Bust Jukebox – #1 (2023): (Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Ruston Kelly, Caitlyn Smith, etc.)

Wow, I really haven’t written one of these features since November? Well, let’s make up for lost time as best as we can, even if most of these reviews aren’t necessarily timely. This would, however, also be a good time to remind you all that I have covered several singles thus far this year alongside my Country Universe colleagues, so if you’re curious, head on over there to check out those reviews. Anyway, onward!

Robert Ellis, “Yesterday’s News” (written by Robert Ellis)

I always feel like I need to include a disclaimer when I discuss Robert Ellis. He’s the sort of artist who started in country-adjacent territory but has slowly veered further toward retro soft-pop over time. And he’s also a wildly sharp but very idiosyncratic writer who wraps heady material through some of the loveliest melodies and hooks around. It’s hipster music, but I embrace it.

And … here comes a five-minute, very slow-rolling acoustic song, so it’s a good thing I placed that disclaimer. To be fair, apparently minimalism is the name of the game with Ellis’ upcoming project. So perhaps it’s fitting that its lead single title track is a relationship-based ode to feeling left behind and forgotten, where the slower pacing only echoes that sentiment further and highlights Ellis’ delivery and the old-school, plainspoken lyrical delivery. It helps that he’s always been a fantastic (if quirky) emotive interpreter capable of grounding melodrama with a sincere ache to it. An odd start – as to be expected, I suppose – but a good one.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, “Death Wish” (written by Jason Isbell)

I’ll save my lengthy preamble on Jason Isbell’s artistic growth over the past decade for the eventual album review, but it is good to have new music from him and his 400 Unit band once again after so long. Interestingly enough, there’s no Dave Cobb on production duty this time around, and given that the lead single to Weathervanes, “Death Wish,” sounds like it’s pushing even further with the stabs at spacey, synth-driven ‘80s rock and Americana that coalesced at points on Reunions like with “Running With Our Eyes Closed” and “Overseas,” I can understand the switch to expand that sound. And for a self-produced effort from Isbell in which Sadler Vaden gets to let even looser on guitar than before and the mix progresses well with the minor swell and bedrock of spacious keys and strings, this is still rich throughout, even if it’s still relatively soft and looking for a chance to really erupt and open up that just never quite comes.

That, combined with the writing and a vocal flow Isbell doesn’t handle well, is probably why I’m unfortunately cooler on it than I’d like to be. His take on the young love trope (at least, young in spirit) adds a healthy dose of reality and danger to the mix – questions of living for something and someone other than yourself, and how doing so can add true fulfillment to an otherwise empty existence – and it’s a nice extension to the darkness that categorized his 2010s work. If anything, this redirects the darker energy toward something primal, engaging, and overall meaningful. And that chorus is going to be stuck in my head for a while. So it’s still a good first start to that next album, and I could see it growing on me; I’m just going to reserve fuller judgment until we get to that album is all.

Ruston Kelly, “The Weakness” (written by Ruston Kelly)

And speaking of switch-ups, we have a new Ruston Kelly lead single, the title track to the inevitable divorce-fueled album following the brighter Shape & Destroy from 2020. But for as much darkness that’s clouded Kelly’s work, there’s always that underbelly of optimism and vigor that keeps the fight going, where pushing onward in spite of everything is both the struggle and a strength. If anything, it’s what’s always made his work feel more real and lived-in, knowing that silencing old demons is a constant, everyday battle, and what makes his albums so potent. And fittingly enough, not giving in the weakness and temptation of old vices is what the title track to Kelly’s newest album is all about.

… It’s just a shame that I’m really not wild about the change in production this time around. What I loved about Kelly’s previous work is how much he played around with different production dynamics to let its atmosphere punch more effectively. This is just slathered with reverb in the instrumentation and vocal production and certainly nails that murky, atmospheric swell, but also feels consistently dull, conventional, and hollow throughout. It’s still as cathartic and primal as anything in Kelly’s discography – he’s that magnetic of a presence and can cut through the clutter, even if said clutter manifests in a different form this time around – and there’s a certain quotable line that emerges toward the end to notch this up higher for me. But I’d be remiss not to say I’m a bit worried for this upcoming project.

Megan Moroney, “Tennessee Orange” (written by Ben Williams, David Fanning, Megan Moroney, and Paul Jenkins)

I’m late to talking about Megan Moroney and don’t really know where to begin. The cynical part of me has watched her rapid rise over the past year via TikTok virality and a connection to Morgan Wallen and wants to not bother, but the rational part of me that says every artist deserves at least one chance says otherwise. And you know, while I can see why “Tennessee Orange” offered a breakthrough late last year on its surface elements alone in its easy connection to college football, I think this is actually pretty decent otherwise. She’s not a particularly distinctive vocal presence or offers much in the way of charisma, but the well-balanced production anchored in the burnished, warm acoustics and pedal steel complements her huskier tone well. And the concept is cute enough, where she’s fallen head over heels for someone to the point where she’s wearing his team’s colors despite still rooting for her home team. If anything, I wish it was played with a little more color or humor; it just feels a bit undercooked and overly serious as is. Even still, not bad.

Caitlyn Smith, “Lately” (written by Troy Verges, Caitlyn Smith, and Gordie Sampson)

I’ve voiced my frustrations plenty about the tactic artists have employed in recent years to release projects and then extend them later on over the year through deluxe editions. But despite me liking Caitlyn Smith’s High EP from last year more than most, I did understand the criticisms and frustrations that she was veering toward more conventional pop-country. “Lately,” however, is a nice remedy ahead of her extended High & Low project, and a great callback to the Starfire era, anchoring itself in the richer, sweeping piano and organ and bolstering itself further through the well-placed backing vocals.

The percussion feels a bit overmixed at points, but as far as soul-stirring pop-country in this vein is concerned, Smith nails her performance with a lot of sweeping urgency in capturing the distance that’s been placed between her and her partner and hoping to close that gap before it becomes worse. And, of course, the details with how she’s distracted herself waiting for her partner’s return are well-placed; there aren’t many other country songs that reference learning Beethoven sonatas and reading Dostoevsky to pass the time. Again, I liked her previous offering, but this is an expansion I can really get behind and showcases her natural talents as a performer best. Boom.

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