Release Date: Feb 17, 2009
Record label: Thirty Tigers
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Country
During his time with the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell always sported the least grizzled voice of the bunch, a surprisingly radio-ready baritone that sounded smoother than Patterson Hood's sandpaper croon and more streamlined than Mike Cooley's twang. That voice carries more weight in Isbell's solo material, where melody and lyrics are emphasized over the swaggering guitar riffs of his previous group. Credited to Isbell and his new backing band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit finds the songwriter reprising the same formula showcased on 2007's Sirens of the Ditch: a mix of Southern rock and rootsy, melancholic country-soul that manages to both elevate and commiserate during its 52 minutes.
Ex-Trucker adds a band for his sophomore albumFairly or not, Jason Isbell may never live down his three-album stint in the Drive-By Truckers, during which he proved himself a keen observer of Southern life. However, on his 2007 solo debut Sirens of the Ditch, he struggled to produce an album of similarly compelling story-songs, most of the tracks sounding too burnished to capture the spontaneity of his former band. For his new album, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Isbell has assembled a tight, nuanced group to breathe life into his songwriting—he still has his sharp eye for narrative details (as the final verses of “Seven-Mile Island” make clear).
For his second album since leaving Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell offers up something that, in truth, isn't all that dissimilar to the Truckers, melding three strands of southern music: rock, soul and country. There's no shortage of variety - the opening three tracks manage to essay country-rock, a white soul ballad that could have come from a Delaney & Bonnie album, and powerpop - but there's a slight feeling of colourlessness about it, a sense that none of the 11 tracks quite have the bit of magic that lifts a good album to dizzy heights. A former member of Son Volt is among Isbell's backing band, which seems apt - Jay Farrar was another hugely talented roots rock songwriter who seemed to lose some magical spark when he left his first band, in that case Uncle Tupelo.
Not long after I’d seen them play a blistering, dynamic, and triumphant show in my hometown, Jason Isbell quit the Drive-By Truckers. Or was fired. No one—at least, not me—knows what happened beyond the fact that his relationship with his wife (Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker) had gone south. I can remember feeling disappointed that I’d never again get a chance to see that same fantastic three-headed monster together on stage.
Jason Isbell's second effort since his departure (or whatever it was) from the Drive-by Truckers unveils his new band. The guitarist has dubbed it the 400 Unit, after a psychiatric facility in his hometown of Florence, Ala. , a winning metaphor for a rock band if there ever were one.