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Jason Isbell | Live From the Ryman & Amanda Shires | To The Sunset

The family that plays together present a pair of superb solo releases.

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I remember the first time I saw Jason Isbell play. It was in a dive bar in Austin about 15 years ago, when he had just started playing guitar for The Drive-By Truckers. To my eyes, he looked like a slightly chubby kid who was out past curfew. But man, could he play. Even back then, you could tell he had something special. Since then, he’s lived up to that potential, becoming one of the greatest songwriters of his generation and a leading light in the contemporary Americana scene. And he’s still a helluva performer, as his new album Live From the Ryman makes abundantly clear. Recorded with his 400 Unit band during one of their regular residencies at the Nashville landmark and drawn from his last three albums — the ones he made after finally kicking the booze and drugs that were dimming his light — the 13-song set features stellar performances of dark roots gems like Cumberland Gap, Last Of My Kind, If We Were Vampires, Elephant and the pre-sobriety cautionary tale Super 8. You could quibble (and some folks have) that it doesn’t include any earlier songs or covers, but the power and passion on display in these cuts more than make up for it. Still, if you’re after something decidedly different, try To The Sunset, the latest album from singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, who also happens to be Isbell’s wife and frequent bandmate. Although gifted with a sharp sense of melody, superior lyrical skills and a tender voice that invites comparison to Dolly, she refuses to be subject to the confines of stereotypical roots music here. Instead, these 12 songs push the stylistic envelope by wandering into skittery electronica and fuzzy swamp-rock, while sonically melding everything from beatboxes and electronics to peripheral atmospheric squiggles and noisy textures. In short, these expansively produced cuts serve as the cerebral, high-flying yin to Isbell’s earthy, grounded yang. So basically, if one of them doesn’t get you, the other definitely will.