Recording of April 2009: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

JASON ISBELL: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Lightning Rod/Thirty Tigers LRR-99682 (CD). 2009. Jason Isbell, prod.; Matt Pence, prod., eng. AAD? TT: 52:09
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

It always starts with some chick. She saves him. Or she breaks 'im in two. And suddenly a song that will define some singer-songwriter's career jumps out of his head, trickles down his arm, out of his fingers, onto paper, and across the strings.

For Jason Isbell, that woman "smelled like cigarettes and wine / and she kept me happy all the time." And in a quatrain where Isbell separates himself from the songwriting pack, "she lives down inside of me still / rolled up like a twenty-dollar bill / She left me alone with these pills / in the last of my youth" ("Cigarettes and Wine").

Given the fresh opening at the top of the American male singer-songwriter pantheon, now that The Boss has lifted from KISS a chord progression for "Outlaw Pete" (okay, to be charitable: "unconsciously channeled"), Isbell is one of a pack of youngsters coming up fast on the outside.

Back in 2003, Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers to become the group's third songwriter, along with founders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood. At the time it seemed like too much of good thing, and sure enough, after three Trucker records, Isbell, whose moody tunes contrasted nicely with Cooley and Patterson's crunchy Southern guitar rock—and also shifted the band's metaphysical center to a more serious place—decided to go it alone. In his first solo record, Sirens of the Ditch, recorded when he was still a Trucker, Isbell showed many of the cards in his hand: power pop, contrite ballads, the occasional rock tune—all of which, combined, was the sound of a songwriter finding his solo performing and songwriting legs. If Sirens felt tentative and safe, better to start that way than with a colossal artistic blunder. And yet the seeds of this triumphant second solo record were all there: lyrics studded with interesting and cleverly rhymed specifics, a studious and abiding interest in musical textures from unexpected instruments like banjo and resonator guitar, and a willingness to experiment with keyboard sounds throughout.

All of which has led to the exceptional Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The fact that the album's title includes his full name hints that perhaps even Isbell considers it his proper debut. From the masterful presentation of the opening track, "Seven-Mile Island"—playful keyboard flourishes between verses, percussion from shakers to handclaps, lyrics full of "dusty caves" and "concrete towers," and that resonator guitar—it's clear that he now has a firmer grasp of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.

The overall hue here is still smoky and sepia. Tunes like "Sunstroke," with its key chorus line of "make little fools of ourselves," and the aforementioned "Cigarettes and Wine," are exquisitely insecure and regretful. But Isbell also tacks more upbeat in the big power-pop number, "However Long," whose lyrics acknowledge the menace of a "beast with the gasoline hand / breathing fire, drawing lines in the sand," but whose chorus chants of hope: "There's nothing you can say or do to us to drown out this amen / 'cause however long the night, the dawn will break again." The next tune, which I assume is the coda to "However Long" is titled simply "Coda," and is a nice touch.

Isbell turns up the guitars to Blaze in "Good," in which the singer accepts that he "can't make myself be good / I wish I could"—and in "Soldiers Get Strange," a powerful new entry in the PTSD school of songwriting that manages to avoid all the clichés and maudlin sentiments that can make tunes (and films, for that matter) about the struggles of returning Iraq War veterans sound so trite. Again, it's the allusive lyrics that mark him as a gifted songwriter: "It ain't the time that made it go South / it ain't the liquor that burns in your mouth / nearly nothing around here's changed / It's just that a soldier gets strange."

Then, for "No Choice in the Matter," the 30-year-old Muscle Shoals native pays tribute to another local legend by shifting into Eddie Hinton mode for a soul ballad—which he can actually sing. Recorded at Muscle Shoals' storied FAME studios, this tune has an easy, familiar groove that will instantly attract any fan of classic soul music, and is exactly the kind of greasy and real Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn–inspired track that just seems to float in the air, water, and musician DNA of north Alabama. (Isbell's band are named The 400 Unit after a Muscle Shoals–area mental hospital.) The sound that Isbell and drummer-coproducer-engineer Matt Pence (Centro-matic) get from the FAME cocoon is an object lesson in how to use compression to maximize loudness without destroying sound quality. A two-LP edition was unavailable at press time.

As it does with most young, sensitive male songwriters, Jason Isbell's vision comes back to that pesky female of "Cigarettes and Wine." His heart said, Go! She was no good. But she saved him. And now he's learned. Therein lie the faith and convictions—so far—of a major new solo artist.—Robert Baird