Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Jason Isbell, 'Southeastern,' and Aoife O'Donovan, 'Fossils'

On their respective new albums, Jason Isbell and Aoife O'Donovan take integral steps to solidify their roles as leading song stylists of a new Americana generation.

Isbell's Southeastern is a record about redemption. It is a largely reflective work that steps away from the tough-knuckled electric music he has fashioned with the 400 Unit and, before that, Drive-By Truckers. The tone is intimate, homespun and atypically acoustic as the record details stories of devastation (specifically, a life wrecked by self abuse) and personal rebirth — until it's not.

In one of its most absorbing passages, the confessional New South Wales finds Isbell at peace with his demons and grateful for a second shot at life ("God bless the busted boat that brings us back"). No sooner does the song ease to a gentle finish than Southeastern screams back to life with Super 8, a huge, cranky rock 'n' roll road song that depicts life in an unrelenting tailspin played out in a budget motel ("Saw my guts, saw my glory, it would make a great story if I ever could remember it right").

Super 8 is an extreme instance, though. "My angry heart beats relatively easy," Isbell sings quietly but proudly at the conclusion of Southeastern, offering if not a happy ending to a life set on auto-destruct, then at least one blessed by hope.

O'Donovan's Fossils is one of the year's more anticipated solo debuts because she has been visible for close to a decade in band settings (including the neo-bluegrass unit Crooked Still) and collaborative projects (with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and the all-star string group Goat Rodeo Sessions). Then Alison Krauss covered O'Donovan's Lay My Burden Down two years ago, renewing focus on her songwriting. That's why O'Donovan's vocal and compositional talents are best accepted independently instead of as the product of a more generically viewed singer-songwriter.

Her own version of Lay My Burden Down leads off Fossils. It's a risky move, considering that the whispery tone of her singing already is reminiscent of Krauss. But the settings soon shift. Briar Rose reveals how adaptable and engaging her vocal reserve can be as banjo, accordion and pedal steel color the song's plaintive melody.

The gems float freely from there. Thursday's Child opens with jazzy references that suggest ambient trumpeter Jon Hassell before the restless spirit of the lyrics ("Thursday's child has far to go, don't I know") relents. The show-stealer is the album-closing Oh, Mama, a slice of lazy summer salvation with an infectious chorus and an easy, gospel-esque meshing of styles that suggests The Band.

Let's put it this way. Fossils is a record that no summer play list, especially those to be enjoyed about dusk, is complete without.