Five Great Jason Isbell Songs

Welcome to a blog post about Jason Isbell.  This will be kinda short and it will kick off with some “stipulations.”

Stipulation I: Luna is the best “active” band, and “Malibu Love Nest” is their best song.

Stipulation II: Craig Finn is the the best active rock star, and the live version of “Killer Parties” on A Positive Rage best exemplifies this.

Stipulation III: Jason Isbell is the best active songwriter, and “Different Days” is his best song.

Suggestion I: I don’t know who the greatest band of all time is.  There are a lot of options.  The Beatles is not the right answer.

Suggestion II: Mick Jagger is the greatest frontman of all time, although Chuck Berry is still the purest rock star that will probably ever be (man I would love to play the keyboard like the dude in this video!)

Suggestion III: Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter of all time, although Dylan’s high points are higher.

We shall explore all the above stipulations at some later date.  Today we are looking at Isbell.  Today on the Periscope there we said we might do a post here about “Different Days.”  Well, that’s going to be a little too much work for today.  So instead we’ll do a little top five.  These are not necessarily my favorite 5 songs from Jason, but pretty much.  So, “in no particular order”:

I. “Danko/ Manuel,” from The Dirty South.  2003.  On the Periscope I was a little inaccurate–Isbell was 24-25 when he wrote this one.  It’s about the band The Band, and about emulating one’s heroes and the pros and cons of that action.

First they make you out to be/ the only pirate on the sea/ they say Danko would have sounded just like me/ “Is that the man you want to be?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaWkvqah9W8

II. “Goddam Lonely Love” also from The Dirty South.  2003.

So I’ll take two of what you’re having and I’ll take all of what you got/
to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before/ a man walks into a bar and leaves before his ashes hit the floor/ stop me if I ever get that far/ the sun’s a desperate star that burns like every single one before

Dude was 25 years old.

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Song of the Day: Luna’s Tracy I Luv You

The song of the day today is “Tracy I Luv You,” from Luna.  Our operating assumption this month is that Luna is the best band and that Craig Finn is the greatest rock star.  We will continue to explore this assumption on the kibbitzer.

Tracy was first recorded for the Penthouse sessions (released in 1995), and left off the record.  It was later collected on the deluxe version.  The Penthouse version sounds pretty finished to me, however the band would hold it back and rework it for Pup Tent.  It is hard to say where the song would have been sequenced if it had made the cut.  Especially in the early version, it is not as uptempo as “Chinatown,” still the obvious single.  It would also not have fit well around “23 Minutes in Brussels,” which needs its own space.  I could see it sequenced second, with “Sideshow by the Seashore” moved to anchor the back half somewhere–but that’s party because I like Tracy better than Sideshow.  Or, it could have gone late–say 11th if Penthouse had had 12 tracks.  I like a really sneaky good song like Tracy second to last.  A good example of this move is on Lambchop’s Flotus, where “NIV” sits 10th and sets up the shaggy-epic “The Hustle.”  Here, Tracy would set up “Bonnie and Clyde,” maybe not a natural fit but I kind of like it.  The Penthouse version is only 3:50 though, while the Pup Tent version is 4:50.  4:50 is a better length to set up a song like Bonnie.

Anyway, the slightly more syrupy, marginally slower early version was redone and ended up on 1997’s Pup Tent.  I like the fact that the new version gets an one minute extended outro with the cascade of “doooo/ doo doo doo,” though I’m not sure that I don’t like the early version better.  Pup Tent’s sound was notoriously labored over, and in his memoir Wareham writes that Tracy was especially tough to get the vocal for.  Although the album was trying to record, Wareham writes that “Pup Tent was not our best record, but it was our best-sounding record, containing all kinds of sonic textures.”  He also told filmmaker Noah Baumbach in 2016 that “there are some really cool sounding things on Pup Tent; ‘Pup Tent’ itself, ‘Tracy I Love You,’ ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy.’ So, sonically, I love it.”  Indeed Tracy has stayed on the set list and established itself as one of the standouts of Luna’s catalog.

The song opens with a classic Wareham verse: “Tell me stories on my birthday/ Buy me gifts on Halloween/ She’s pretending not to know me/ But I know where she’s been.”

Nobody does needy/ cheeky/ sly/ sexy in quite the same combination as peak Wareham.

Two verses later we get another deeply quotable verse: “I spend too much time in airplanes/ Eating peanuts and getting high/ Don’t know why I can’t stop smiling/ When I only need to cry.”  It is this verse especially that I prefer on the Penthouse sessions–there is a weird stuttering reverb that almost pulls the vocal back in time–it’s like a car trying and not quite getting into third gear.  For the Pup Tent version, Eden’s guitar behind the vocal has been improved, and the vocal is much smoother.  To each their own–both versions rock.

Someday soon we’ll do a top 15 or 20 Luna songs, and it will be interesting to see where Tracy lands.  I’m thinking top 10 is in the cards for and it’s the song of the day, by a mile.

Works Cited/ Referenced:

Lambchop, Flotus.

Luna, Penthouse.

Luna, Pup Tent.

Salon.com. “The ultimate Luna interview: Noah Baumbach and Dean Wareham talk super-groups, the Velvet Underground and the history of one of New York’s greatest bands.”

Wareham, Dean.  Black Postcards.