Jason Isbell wasn't exactly overshadowed by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley during his time with Drive-By Truckers. Sure, he joined the soulful Southern rockers after the release of their magnum opus, Southern Rock Opera, but he contributed his share of strong narrative tunes to the Truckers' swelling songbook. And his smooth, folk-rock-quality tenor provided a welcome contrast to Hood's throaty growl and Cooley's down-home baritone.
Still, Isbell wasn't the DBT's focal point, and he was never going to be. And when he left the band in 2006 to polish up the studio recordings that became his solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch, the decision to move on made a lot of sense.
With much of DBT's membership contributing to Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell's occasional tips of the hat to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Muscle Shoals soul were to be expected. Even so, this is clearly Isbell's personal musical statement. "Dress Blues," a piano-driven ballad about a young Marine from Isbell's hometown who was killed in Iraq just weeks before shipping home, manages to be both a Dylanesque protest tune and a hooky country-rock anthem. "Brand New Kind of Actress" takes the aspiring actress/working waitress trope and pours it into a bouncy bit of guitar pop that segues effortlessly into greasy blues-rock when Isbell picks up his slide. The Skynyrd influence bubbles up portentously on "Try," a moody smear of swamp rock that overwhelms clichéd notions of contented domesticity when Isbell moans, "You can't make her stay her ass at home/But you try, don't you?"
Occasionally, Sirens of the Ditch seems almost too slick, too radio-ready. But that's really the fault of the production, not Isbell's writing or his performance. And with a full band backing him up, it's a dead certainty that even his most mainstream pop material will have more edge live. But don't come to the High Noon Saloon expecting a version of the Drive-By Truckers. Isbell's on his own path these days, and he'll indicate as much when he steps up to the microphone for the first time next Thursday.