Wednesday, April 26, 2017

album review: 'jason eady' by jason eady

It's a bit of a trend for indie country critics - and I include myself in this category - to assert that when it comes to Jason Eady, some people should just leave the room. If you're coming in looking for pop country or style or anything to detract from many have deemed some of the purest forms of the entire genre, especially out of Texas, this is not for you. If you're looking for something that might cross over into the mainstream... well, maybe in Texas, but I'm only qualified to say that because the mainstream country scene has no idea what it's doing and throwing everything at the wall to see what'll stick, from Chris Stapleton to Thomas Rhett. And it's not like Jason Eady didn't dabble with softer tones on AM Country Heaven in 2012 that could have possibly crossed over.

Suffice to say, he didn't stick with it, and in early 2014 he delivered Daylight & Dark, a stunning pure shot of fantastic country music that if not for Run The Jewels would have topped my best albums list that year. And while so many lined up to praise Sturgill Simpson and the other indie darlings as the scene inflated over the past few years, Jason Eady seems to slip out of the picture - and yeah, I partially blame myself for that, because when he dropped an acoustic duets album with his wife Something Together in December of 2016, I missed it too. Part of it is country's lousy web presence, but Eady also seems to run just below the radar for too many folks, and some for whom I've played his material can get a little intimidated by his soft, plainspoken, yet cutting delivery - for a lot of people, it's a purer form of country than they can handle.

In other words, this was among my most anticipated projects of 2017, and I had the highest of expectations going in, especially considering his songwriting only seems to be getting more refined with each passing album. So what does he deliver on a self-titled record?

Okay look, you all knew I was going to love this - and I definitely do, no question about it, it's easily one of the best records of 2017 and I can see this making a very credible challenge in the top 5. Hell, even the people who don't normally listen to country that I've shown this to like it, showing that Jason Eady can make a slightly more accessible record while still preserving its quality. The big question is whether it is a stronger work than Daylight & Dark, and that's much more difficult to evaluate, even if it really just comes down to the finest of details and nitpicking - and yet to some extent it's irrelevant, because everyone should have gone out to get this record yesterday, it's that fantastic!

And here's the thing: as much as this met my expectations and more, I want to emphasize that the 'lack of surprise' on my part is not anything against this self-titled record's quality, because you could make the argument that it's an even tighter, more refined work than its predecessor. For Daylight & Dark, the two most noticeable flaws I'd call out in the three years I've been listening to it are the clumsiness of 'One, Two... Many' that feels a tad overdone, and the closing track 'A Memory Now' with Hayes Carll and Evan Felker, which doesn't quite fit with the record's lyrical tone and strikes me as a weaker ending, while still being a good song. The self-titled record, meanwhile, has neither issue: slimmed down to just ten tracks this time, just over a half hour, and opting for a slight uptick in tempo and mood,  there isn't room for dead weight and frankly, there isn't any, not in the composition or the writing. And that sense of refinement also applies to the instrumentation and production - there aren't any flourishes, gimmicks, extended instrumental solos to show off the technical prowess of the veterans Eady is working with, or even an electric guitar! Now to some that'll be viewed as barebones, but this approach is two-pronged: one, it's designed to showcase some phenomenal full and organic tones courtesy of the guitars, mandolin, banjo, and especially the fiddle; and secondly, it's designed to place all emphasis on our frontman and his writing, with the backing vocals only slipping in from his wife Courtney Patton or on 'No Genie In This Bottle' from Vince Gill himself. And I really do want to highlight Kevin Welch's production here, because there's a lot of skill to grasping the fullness of the instrumental pickups, to highlight the ragged edges without coming across as sloppy, or in the vocal arrangements keeping things intimate but not to the point of claustrophobia. And considering that Jason Eady is such a plainspoken, subtle performer in his own right - he's not a naturally commanding or bombastic singer but managed to contain enough quiet intensity to pull in the audience naturally, that production had to be on-point or it would feel less organic, and that was never part of the equation.

Now I can see some disregarding the arrangements here as unexceptional or Eady's delivery as too low-key, reflecting a restraint he really doesn't need. But that's the thing: this does not feel unnatural or out of Eady's comfort zone in stripping things back - this is a record of subtleties that feels middle-aged because Eady himself is middle-aged, so why compromise truth? But that places tremendous weight on the writing itself and for Eady to draw out the same sort of nuance there... and man, does he ever stick the landing. Again, the strength to Jason Eady's writing has always been his ability to use simple language to convey real subtleties of emotional situations that reflect real humanity beneath them, but where most of Daylight & Dark was spent unsteadily walking the thin line of balance between good and bad impulses, this feels like it has come later, with grievances settled and his gait a little more stable, even if the destination down the road might not be. And the fact that he opened the record with 'Barabbas' is the best possible example: recontextualizing the Passion story and taking the perspective of the bandit released instead of Jesus, it's a gutpunch of a track as he sorts through feelings of fear, confusion, guilt, relief, and a newfound question of faith he doesn't quite grasp. And when you follow it a few songs later with 'Black Jesus', reminiscences of an old musician friend in Georgia where they both worked construction and the acknowledgement of the more similarities they shared than differences... again, it reflects the maturity and the shades of grey this record inhabits so damn effectively. And that also means the relationship songs naturally get more complicated: the post-breakup yearning for a genie to correct his old mistakes and vices on 'No Genie In This Bottle', and yet even as he knows none of it is going to happen, I do like the sentiment in the verse that after trying to correct himself he'd actually set the genie free - it's a beautiful little detail but says a lot about Jason Eady's character. Similar case for the relationship of 'Where I've Been', which has been remade as a solo track from Something Together and seems to accentuate the lonely disconnection and failed love that inspired the girl to seek passion elsewhere - and yet if you listen, you can hear Courtney Patton's background track to echo the words.

Now that's not saying some things aren't more straightforward, but Eady finds a way to add a spin on them either through the arrangement or writing that I really admire, like the inclusion of Patton's backing vocals on the post-breakup 'get-over-her' song 'Drive', implying she might be doing just the same, or how 'Waiting To Shine' in its songwriting metaphor of 'mining words from coal' to build songs, uses the fact that Patton is also a songwriter to show how her whisper can spur the search anew - sure, it's blatantly meta, but in the best way possible. And it's also not saying that Jason Eady isn't bringing powerful emotions to the table: 'Not Too Loud' is a song about his teenage daughter growing up and getting ready to go to college that beautifully articulates the deep, mingled feelings of pride and longing for her presence, I guarantee if you share this with any parent with kids getting ready to leave, it'll stick in a big way. But the track that really serves as the thematic lynchpin of the record is the closer, '40 Years', as Eady takes stock of the hard lessons he's learned and is still learning having now reached middle age, and it's almost too perfect: while he hasn't precisely changed, what he has learned is subtlety, the little emotions and comforts within the bigger picture. Nuance isn't just a welcome feature, it's pretty much the theme of the project, and one I can't praise enough.

But circling back to that question of whether it's better than Daylight & Dark... look, there's a part of me that really wants to say, 'shut up, who cares, they're both incredible', but I think the better answer is that they're made for different points of your life. Daylight & Dark was rougher around the edges, but they were in learning the lessons that Jason Eady delivers - while they both deserve attention, I predict this record will probably resonate a lot more deeply with older or at the very least more mature audiences - and hell, even I'm not all way there yet. But in terms of quality... 9/10, and right now this is one of the records to beat in 2017. Jason Eady has managed to mine and refine that diamond hard core, and frankly, I can hardly wait to see where he takes it next. But until he does, this is worth all of your attention and so much more.

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