Music

Jason Isbell's Early Solo Days Are Revisited on the Re-Issue of 'Sirens of the Ditch'

One of the most talented voices in Americana today, Jason Isbell's debut solo album Sirens of the Ditch receives a proper reissue.

Sirens of the Ditch (Deluxe Edition)
Jason Isbell

New West

13 July 2018

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.