To Americana fans, Jason Isbell does not need an introduction (but, of course, here we go). Isbell has racked up a slew of awards and nominations from the Grammys, the Country Music Awards, and the Americana Music Honors and Awards. As a member of the Drive-By Truckers from 2001–2007 he slugged out some of the best Southern-fried rock songs in recent history, while his current outfit, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, are arguably one of the most exciting bands in rock today. His Twitter account is a refreshing scroll of self-awareness and humor amidst the otherwise miserable cesspool of social media. “If We Were Vampires”, the heartbreaking, beautiful duet with his wife, the supremely talented Amanda Shires, can reduce even the most stoic to weep like babies.
Still, introductions are nice, especially if they show rather than tell. Sirens of the Ditch, his 2012 debut solo recording, is getting a rerelease from New West Records. It’s a snapshot of Isbell’s past, right as began getting his footing as a solo artist.
Sirens shows Isbell embracing steady blues and pop influences. Recorded not long after his move to Nashville, it reflects a turn towards polish and production and away from the raw, visceral fuzz and buzz of the Truckers. Opening track “Brand New Kind of Actress” is a bright slice of Alabama-born alternative rock. It’s lightness contrasted with the grinding rhythm and blues of “Try” and “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” show Isbell’s range as a songwriter and a bandleader.
Out on his own, Sirens put Isbell in the driver’s seat (pun intended only half way) as the leading voice writing the tunes and directing the recording. We see hints of the assured songwriter Isbell will grow into as a solo artist. That’s not to say Sirens is a trial run; it’s an excellent collection of ballads and rockers. The album succeeds not just because his songs are wise and articulate, but also as they’re not afraid to be fragile and intimate. “Dress Blues” looks at the tragedy and suffering of a small town reeling from losing one of its own to a war that feels so painful and honest coming from a relatively young, yet no less wise, songwriter. “Shotgun Wedding” bears a strong Bruce Springsteen influence, but Isbell sings the chorus with such an honest pleading you can’t help but hear the Boss as a well-distilled influence. Likewise, there’s innocent freedom in “The Devil Is My Running Mate”, a spirit that flexes Isbell’s narrative talent without coming off as too gruff or inauthentic to the then young singer-songwriter.
It’s Isbell’s other role, bandleader, that starts to comes into focus on Sirens. Isbell toured and recorded with the Truckers at a young age, helping him grow into the role of a working musician in a stable, solid outfit. Backed up by a handful of solid players – including former Trucker bandmates Patterson Hood and Shonna Tucker – the tracks feel just a little artificial. It’s tight, but not “we’ve toured with these songs for months tight”, a certain locked-in quality that only comes after playing songs live over and over. “Down in a Hole” and “Shotgun Wedding” are great examples of this conundrum: nothing’s wrong, but knowing where Isbell and company are coming from, you know how right they could make it with more time and seasoning.
This deluxe edition of Sirens comes with a handful of bonus tracks, as is the way of reissues. All together they’re not bad tracks, but it’s not difficult to see why they were left off of the original release. “Whisper” and “Crystal Clear” feel like standard Southern rockers, perfectly serviceable yet lacking in comparison to their the rest of the album. The Patterson Hood-penned “The Assassin” finds its footing, balancing a dark take on relationships with pedal steel guitars and palm muted power chords. “Racetrack Romeo” is a fine mid-tempo rocker, one that would have benefitted from more dynamic twists. For serious fans of Isbell’s evolving career, the bonus tracks provide a view into the recording sessions for Sirens, which is all they need to be.
Sirens of the Ditch introduced Jason Isbell as a solo artist packing evocative lyrics and whiskey-stained music. It’s a solid record of well-crafted tracks, although this may only truly excite the hardcore fans and completionists who likely already know each song by heart. Consider it an artifact, a glimpse back into one of Americana’s best songwriters in the making.