Wild Mercury Sound

The Hold Steady on their way, plus Jason Isbell

John Mulvey

A lot of slightly anxious looking at the weather forecast this morning. It's Uncut's tenth birthday party this evening, and The Hold Steady are meant to be playing on the roof of our building.

Looking forward to the band's show tonight reminded me, though, that I've been meaning to write about the Jason Isbell solo album for what seems like months now. Isbell, as you probably know, until recently figured in Alabama's mighty Drive-By Truckers, a band you could crudely describe as a kind of Southern Rock analogue to The Hold Steady.

Of the three frontmen in the Truckers, it always seemed that Isbell - younger, intensely talented, rarely getting as many songs per record as Patterson Hood - would leave sooner or later. "Sirens Of The Ditch", his first solo album, is not, however, any kind of parting shot. In fact, I think it was pretty much recorded two or three years ago, and has sat on the shelf until now.

As such, it might be a mistake to judge this as the best of Isbell, recorded as it was at a time when he'd give his best songs to the Truckers. Consequently there's nothing here that's quite the match of his very best songs like "Danko/Manuel".

That said, it's still a pretty auspicious start. "Sirens Of The Ditch" tones down the grappling, hairy attack of the Truckers: the influence of Patterson Hood's father David, a noted Muscle Shoals session man, is maybe more pronounced than that of his son. "Hurricanes And Hand Grenades", in particular, has that sticky lope so familiar from local soul records, and you can imagine Isbell fancying himself as a boyish Dan Penn, perhaps.

There is rock here - the opening "Brand New Kind Of Actress" has a certain Stonesy lash to it. But the double-barrelled Lynyrd Skynyrd raunch of the Truckers is largely absent. Instead, Isbell asserts himself as a confident if rueful singer-songwriter, operating in that peculiar southern hinterland between country, folk, soul and rock. Steve Earle is a vague reference point, but - a few corny moments of male angst notwithstanding - Isbell is a strong enough songwriter to stake out his own turf. "Dress Blues" and "Grown" are especially lovely, but the best thing about "Sirens Of The Ditch" is that I suspect he has a dozen better songs ready to go. We should keep an eye on him, for sure.

Oh yeah, here's Jason's Myspace.


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