If you will indulge me a half-cocked theory that the genre lineage represented by the forefathers of swaggering, guitar-driven Southern Rock Lynyrd Skynyrd and of roots-reverent, punk-drunk alt.country Uncle Tupelo beget the fierce, dark Faulknerian beast, The Drive By Truckers. Jason Isbell was a key element in that propagation when he replaced Rob Malone on guitar and vocals during the Southern Rock Opera tour in 2001, a time many see as the start of their golden era.
Making his mark on the band’s fourth studio album, Decoration Day, Isbell did something awe-inspiring – he stood toe-to-toe with great songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and penned the title track for the album
in a reported three days after joining the band. If that weren’t enough he also wrote the outstanding Outfit, a song about Southern pride, familial loyalty and not “Gettin’ Above Your Raisin'” that is still part of his live set. He was 22 at the time.
Isbell’s first solo release after divorcing his wife, Trucker’s bass player – and in the wake if Isbell’s departure vocalist – Shonna Tucker, and leaving (or getting pushed) by the band was 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch was a strong but wobbly sound of a young man finding his feet as a solo artist but offered a jewel in the reverent requiem Dress Blues.The new self-titled release seems even more unsure and scattered and offers nothing close to Dress Blues.
Now 30, Isbell’s silky baritone makes him a kind of rougher Ray Price raised on rock and he sounds great here. His exceptional band, the 400 Unit (this being his first release with his touring band) do what they can with the material given to them. Steady beats and searing guitars give what little cohesion and fuel is felt in the album.
The sweeping Seven-Mile Island begins the album with dobro and driving drums which start out strong but stay so far up in the mix that they become distracting over the duration. But the story is of haggard drifters torn between family and freedom is there gleaming brightly under all the noise.
Isbell can still melt you heart; Sunstroke, and the dusty Steve Earle-style weeper Cigarettes and Wine, or melt your eardrums; Good, but for the most part this release is, and it pains me to admit this, forgettable.
Many strong songwriers that start in the alt.country fold find that the genre is constricting sanf strike out toward other horizons and though Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is not as far off the reservation as Neko Case or Jeff Tweedy have wondered but there is a level of experimentation here that is less then the sum of its parts. Many of the sings like Streetlights and The Last Song I Will Write take a middling mid-tempo arrangement and render any veins of storytelling gold into lead. I’ve seen Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit do some of these songs live and they come off much better in concert, but that just puts a finer point on what these might have been if approached with a little more care and a lot more fire.
I wish Isbell would take his own advice as he laid it out ” real nice and slow” in his Drive By Trucker’s era gem Outfit; “…don’t try to change who you are boy, and don’t try to be who you ain’t.”