Sirens Of The Ditch

Jason Isbell

New West Records, 2007

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


By the time this album was coming together, 28-year-old Jason Isbell had been a member of Drive-By Truckers for six years, playing a supporting role in the Southern rock / alt-country outfit co-founded by fellow singer-songwriter-guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. In that time the North Alabama native had written and sung eight well-received songs for the group and there was likely a recognition by all parties that his talents might one day outgrow the band.

Sure enough, three months before his 2007 debut solo album Sirens Of The Ditch was released, Hood announced Isbell’s amicable departure from the Drive-By Truckers. And while Isbell’s well-documented drinking and drugging may have factored in, it’s hard not to speculate on album co-producer Hood’s thoughts as he sat in the control room hearing these songs take shape. My best guess: “Damn, that’s a really good song. And another. And another. And—f**k, if I’m any kind of friend to this guy, I need to tell him he shouldn’t be in our band anymore.”

Or something like that.

Sirens in fact deploys much of the then-current DBT lineup as session players supporting Isbell, with bassist Shonna Tucker (Isbell’s soon-to-be-ex-wife) and drummer Brad Morgan playing on the bulk of these tracks, while Hood adds guitar and piano to a couple and serves as co-producer with Isbell on the majority. The result is an album that’s as musically muscular as DBT in places, but shows how Isbell was already well on his way to establishing his own thoughtful, rangy, rootsy style as a solo performer.

The highlights here are many, but three stand out in particular. Kickoff cut and lead single “Brand New Kind Of Actress” is a chunky, propulsive rocker with a clever first-person lyric narrating the story of actress Lena Clarkson’s fatal entanglement with producer Phil Spector. If that sounds tricky to pull off, it is, but Isbell succeeds admirably in framing it as a cautionary tale about ambition and celebrity.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Midway through, “Dress Blues” is a stately, haunting number about a young soldier’s death, with Isbell declaring that “Nobody here could forget you / You showed us what we had to lose.” The lyric is magnificent and remarkable in its shadings, honoring the sacrifice while questioning the need for it to have happened at all. Down towards the tail end, “Shotgun Wedding” delivers a pumping rocker that’s also one of the strangest love songs ever, in which a shy outcast longs to marry the pregnant, abused girl he has a silent crush on; it's a small-town Southern Gothic set to Isbell and Hood’s punchy guitar and piano hooks.

The rest of the album finds Isbell playing with some of his favorite tropes and musical flavors; there’s DBT-like heavy blues-rock (“Try”); a country-rock character study (“The Magician”); and an acoustic ballad ruminating on the evils of war and demagoguery (“The Devil Is My Running Mate”). As solid as the musical foundation of all these songs is, it’s the lyrics that jump out, as on the country-blues Dylan homage “Down In A Hole”: “Standing in the window with his tongue hanging out / Like the king of something evil in a yearlong drought / With a dirty white suit, a big white hat / A bullet in his pocket no matter where he's at / He's trouble, but ain't we all?”

On the classic-rock-flavored “Grown”—source of the album’s title—it’s the specificity of the references that elevate the song: “Last night I heard the distant hum / Of another damn hurricane / Oh Sunny, tell me where you've gone / Are you still dancing to Purple Rain?” It’s a nice touch in a song that sounds like it’s about losing his virginity.

Quality lines like that are in fact sprinkled through the whole album like spice in a good gumbo: “I lost a friend, it felt like five / A man who wouldn't compromise / I'll think of him on New Year's Day / And do the Chicago promenade” (“Chicago Promenade”). Or maybe: “So say your last goodbye / Make it short and sweet / There ain't no way for you to fly / With her hanging on your feet” (“In A Razor Town”).

And then there’s the most autobiographical song here, “Hurricanes And Hand Grenades,” a classicist barroom weeper drenched in Hammond and bluesy licks that finds Isbell cataloguing his own flaws, mainly whiskey, cigarettes, and “the white.” It doesn’t dig nearly as deep as his 2013 getting-sober album Southeastern would, but it’s still an honest and perceptive piece of work. 

The most impressive thing about Sirens Of The Ditch—other than Isbell’s obvious talents as a lyricist—is the performances. Even on his very first outing as a solo artist, Isbell manifests a kind of quiet swagger, a laidback-yet-intense energy that infuses every song with weight and purpose. And while a few of the arrangements here feel a little underdeveloped, and Isbell’s lyrics would grow deeper and braver in the years to come, he did some fine, fine work here—more than enough to make it obvious that his future lay as a solo artist rather than the third wheel in someone else’s band.

Rating: B+

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