By John B Moore

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Live from the Ryman (Thirty Tigers)

Jason Isbell surprised many when he walked away from cult favs Drive By Truckers 10 years ago. What were the chances of an Americana artist that bristled against modern country music making it beyond a record or two. Turns out, the chances were a hell of a lot better than most thought. It helps that Isbell also happens to be one of the best songwriters to come around in a generation.

Live from Ryman is Isbell at his best – playing outside of a studio. He is great on record, but on stage in front of an audience? He is simply untouchable.

The record was mostly recorded last year during the band's six sold out nights in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (formerly the Grand Ole Opry), before a rapturous crowd of 2,500 each night. The 13 tracks on the album covers plenty of territory, taking songs from the band's last three records, including some of his most political numbers off of 2017's The Nashville Sound, like "White Man's World" and the brilliant "Hope the High Road".

Live albums are usually a pretty polarizing affair – folks love 'em or hate 'em. That being said, it seems hard that anyone with even a passing interest in Isbell could resist Live from the Ryman.

The Bottle Rockets
Bit Logic (Bloodshot Records)

When you think of St. Louis-based alt rock/country hybrid The Bottle Rockets, high tech is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. For the past few decades, they've been happily, thankfully living in the past, bringing to mind everyone from early Skynard (aka, the only Skynard that really matters) to Bobby Bare and Merle Haggard. But on their 13th album, Bit Logic the band is feeling a bit more modern.

"We were not planning any kind of theme to this album, but one kind of showed up," said singer/guitarist Brian Henneman recently. "If it's anything at all, it's an album about existing in this modern world. Trying to dodge depression and anger."

And man, there's plenty to be depressed and angry about these days, but The Bottle Rockets stick to the day-to-day annoyances for the most part, from the title track about how things just seemed easier without all of the modern "conveniences" of technology to "Highway 70 Blues," about shitty drivers. All are great tracks, but they are at their most cleaver on the fantastic "Bad Time To Be An Outlaw," about how hard it can be to pay the bills when you're playing music that's just not as popular as Carrie Underwood.

Elsewhere, on the surprisingly sentimental "Saxophone," the band is stretching its already impressive sound and showing real depth. The Bottle Rockets prove album after album that they are easily the best thing to come out of St Louis since Chuck Berry.

Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles
Love's Middle Name (Blue Coen Music)

Five albums into it, Boston's Sarah Borges has perfected that mix of alt country, with punk influences; like Willie Nelson in a worn-out Sex Pistols shirt.

Love's Middle Name kicks off with tight, jagged guitars and Borges hard-to-ignore rasp on "House on the Hill," boasting some of her stronger rock impulses, followed up with the fantastic "Lucky Rocks," another song that finds her stepping on the distortion pedal. But, just as quickly, she lurches to the beautiful, slow tempo "Oh Victoria." Lyrically, she's also at the top of her game, casually tossing off great lines like "Are you still takin' them pills/does your coat still sound like a maraca when you're walking up and down around the Tennessee hills" (of the addictive "Are You Still Takin Them Pills").

At it since 2005, both as a solo artists and frontwoman of a full band, Borges has managed to get just a little better with each successive record, all without managing to sand off too many of the rough spots that made her music so appealing in the first place. Nearly half a dozen records in, with Love's Middle Name, Borges has managed to top herself yet again.

Willie Nelson
My Way [Vinyl] (Legacy Recordings)

It's been less than six months since the wildly prolific/national treasure Willie Nelson last put out a record, so of course he'd have another one out before 2018 ended. But unlike Last Man Standing, an album of new originals, My Way finds Nelson sidelined by another covers album, this one dedicated solely to the music of Frank Sinatra (much like 2016's Gershwin album, 2011's Ray Charles album, 2006's Cindy Walker album and on and on…).

That's not to say, My Way is a bad record – it isn't. Willie Nelson's distinctive vocals and his unique delivery and timing are all over this album, redefining these Sinatra standards more so than just about any other time, save that Sid Vicious cover of "My Way". The problem here is the use of orchestration, like on the album opener "Fly me to the Moon" or the strings on "It Was a very Good year," all threaten to eclipse the real charm of Nelson, his vocals and his distinctive nylon-stringed guitar playing. The songs that deserve the most attention are ones with most of the varnish stripped away, like on the title track (complete with harmonica, just like every great Nelson song) or the charming "Blue Moon".

Though it's not nearly as satisfying as a Nelson album with all originals, My Way still manages to allow most of his charm seep in. Thankfully, another album of all Willie originals is likely to be coming out soon.



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