CD Review of Sirens of the Ditch by Jason Isbell

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Sirens of the Ditch
starstarstarno starno star Label: New West Records
Released: 2007
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The fact that Jason Isbell was one of the three frontmen and songwriters for hard Southern rockers Drive By Truckers needs to be counted as only a footnote when considering Jason Isbell’s solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch. The comparisons just wouldn’t be fair, and it’d lead me to use words like “Son Volt lite” or “Ryan Adams wannabe” or “Wilco-envy”…especially because when describing DBT you tend to use such words as “kick-ass” or “monstrous” or “’70s rock.”

So, to be fair, then, Sirens of the Ditch is a pretty powerful debut, one that could only have come from a musician as seasoned as Isbell, who, at 28, has absorbed more musical influences than most guys twice his age. It’s definitely an alt-country affair (yeah, I still use that term): piano, pedal steel, guitars, and a see-sawing back and forth between hard-rawkin’ blowouts (“Brand New Kind of Actress”), ballads (“Chicago Promenade”) and southern soul (“Hurricanes & Hand Grenades”). The mode is decidedly pop (as in pop song structures and tone…not pop as in popular), but the mood is a bit darker, more introspective, as Isbell tackles murder, breakups, death, the personal side of war, brief political overtones on a couple tunes (“Dress Blues,” “The Devil is My Running Mate”).

Isbell also rounded up an all-star cast of characters to help push him out of the DBT nest. First off, Sirens of the Ditch was co-produced by Isbell and DBT’s Patterson Hood. Musically, he’s joined by DBT bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan, with guest turns by the aforementioned Hood, Isbell’s father David Hood, the legendary Spooner Oldham and others. Oh, and it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (and if you have to ask what the significance of that is, go back to listening to Fergie and/or Justin Timberlake).

All in all, this is a solid album by a talented musician who’s got some interesting stuff to say. And, as such, it deserves to be taken on its own merits, rather than held up against the work of a very different former band. And if it sounds a bit like I’m trying to convince myself of that fact, well, I’m only human…

~Una Persson