Jason Isbell – Sirens of the Ditch

 It’s pretty uncommon for me to wonder where I was when I review a reissue of an album which was originally released after 2002 (a.k.a. The year I joined the press). That is not to say there weren’t great albums that I didn’t get my hands my hands on to review them when they were new, it’s simply something I do not readily admit, in print; often, I’ll research and romanticize a reissue when I think it’s good, and won’t necessarily mention that the first occasion when I heard said album happened to be when I discovered the reissue. Some readers might call that dishonest or deceitful, I just recognize that sometimes records come out – and I wasn’t in the right place to notice, at the time. In fact, when it comes to Sirens of the Ditch, I can safely say that I was not even loking vaguely in the direction where the album would have appeared, when it came out; in 2007, The Stooges had just released The Weirdness, Nick Cave had just unveiled Grinderman, Bright Eyes had released Casadaga, Tom Morello had just released the first Nightwatchman album, Dinosaur Jr. had returned with Beyond, Tim Armstrong released his first solo album, White Stripes were singing their swan song with Icky Thump, Meat Puppets reconvened for the first time in years with Rise To Your Knees, en put out their final studio album and Radiohead had made waves with the release of In Rainbows – to say nothing of the multitude of punk albums which were crossing my desk for review as well as the tidal wave of Canadian indie rock records which was still cresting onto new release racks at record stores.

 Needless to say, 2007 was a busy year but, listening to the vinyl reissue of Sirens of the Ditch, I still fail to understand how I missed the album the first time. The music is THAT good, and this vinyl expression of it makes it even better.

 As soon as stylus touches down on the A-side of Sirens of the Ditch and “Brand New Kind of Actress” opens its running, vapors of acts like Paul Westerberg, the Rolling Stones, Son Volt, Ryan Adams all begin to aerate out of the grooves in the record. There, the guitars come so close to sounding like The Stones that it feels wise to check to find out for sure if Keith Richards DIDN’T guest star on the song, while Isbell’s vocal tone just drips soft, satin-y sweetness and an open heart. The whiny and nasal tone of the guitar in the song proves to be eye-opening when it launches into a solo too, and easily ingratiates itself to listeners for its novelty. The combination of those elements will ultimately hold listeners hypnotized even as it trails off about five minutes after beginning and, when it goes, listeners will already know they’re ready to follow it; getting hooked so early is rare, but no listener will deny that it happens here.

 While “Brand New Kind of Actress” sets the stage well for both Isbell and Sirens of the Ditch, the album makes no move to pause for praise or rest on laurels. Rather, it ambitiously drives forward as the side progresses. “Down In A Hole” continues to roll the thread out with a slightly more coy angle employed (the “He’s trouble – but ain’t we all?” rejoinder is the well-honed sort of hook that artists work their whole careers to luck into) before making the most of a deliberately hobbled, Neil Young-inspired guitar rave-up in the form of “Try” and finally seeing Isbell let his southern Soul flag fly with “Chicago Promenade” to close the side. There, listeners will find themselves unable to allow their knees to not get weak as, with a slightly tight piano providing accompaniment, Isbell lets his rasp get wistful and romantic while Mike Dillon’s drums punch hard and win hearts. “Chicago Promenade” proves itself to be a near-flawless end to the A-side but, as listeners find their hands to flip the proverbial disc, some part of them may still be worried about where Isbell might go next – in just four cuts, Isbell made believers out of listeners but, with them won, the game is the singer’s to lose.

 All worries regarding where Sirens of the Ditch are completely dispelled as “Dress Blues” opens the album’s B-side and somehow manages to keep the soul established intact while also going out of its way to wave a flag. Now, given that the song was originally released in 2007 (a.k.a. In the middle of the United States’ “War on Terror”), it would be easy enough to scoff and question how well the cut might have aged with this reissue – but blessedly, Isbell manages to avoid most of the dating that would come with such flag waving by keeping the cut vague in most respects to conflict (although mention of Legionaires does appear) and focusing on the hearts of those remembering and enduring difficult times at home. In doing so, Jason Isbell shows that he has spectacular discipline as he chooses not to pick a side, and listeners will find themselves respecting the angle that the singer takes as the song fades. Better still, that the side completely abandons the emotional centre that the song inhabits makes it easier to both keep and respect, as well as downplay after it finishes.

 As the B-side of Sirens of the Ditch continues, it more closely resembles the forgettable art of an incredibly lengthy running, but manages not to get too stale. “Grown” paraphrases the album’s title while also looking warmly on told times before “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” lands gently in a bluesy form among empty glasses of wine and several packs of cigarette butts before closing out the side’s running with some fine mid-tempo balladry in “In A Razor Town.” As was the case in how the side started, “Razor Town” ends the running meekly but well enough to ensure that listeners will still be engaged, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be rushing to change the plates of this double album in hopes of finding finer fare. Simply said, nothing about this B-side really lends itself to securing the continued appeal of Sirens of the Ditch but, happily, the A-side was good enough to keep listeners stoked and hopeful for more.

 …And the energy does indeed return to Sirens of the Ditch as soon as “Shotgun Wedding” kicks the doors open on the C-side of the album. There, the guitar performance offered commands comparisons to Paul Westerberg’s early solo work while the lyrics are more songwriter-ly in the spirit of Jeff Tweedy’s best compositions with Wilco, and listeners will find themselves right back in line, interest completely renewed, in spite of the C-side being undeniably the shortest on the reissue. “Shotgun Wedding” sparkles with its alt-country sheen and stomp (lines like “Ten years out of high school, still no idea what to do/ You took him home from a nightclub, he took a nightclub to you/ Now I watch from the window, too guilty to scream/ My feet are like steel, I might be in a dream” are the definition of every reason to love alt-country), but concedes the way for the stately banjo pluck of “The Magician” in an almost genteel manner before it, in turn, gets significantly darker and more notably Southern Gothic with side-closer “The Devil Is My Running Mate” – which effortlessly draws new interest and meaning in the twenty-first century; given the state of American politics.

 Because it needs to, the D-side of the Sirens of the Ditch reissue begins the task of tightening the seams and otherwise stitching up Sirens of the Ditch – but that in no way means the side doesn’t offer its own fireworks, as it runs. “Whisper” opens the side but does not assume listeners are starting fresh and clean with it – choosing instead to stomp its way in with the assumption that listeners already know what’s coming made. Now, as rough hewn as the cut is, that is not said to imply that it’s just another rock song; rather, Jason Isbell chooses to present himself like the artistic half-step between Tom Waits and Neil Young as he avoids apologizing for all misgivings and wrongdoing (check out lines like “I see your rage and your quivering lip/ The lines in your face, that hitch in your hips/ I know this time there’s no going back/ The things that I owe you are things that I lack/ And I found it in me to say I was wrong/ Girl, you spin like a parasol and sing like a song”) and just stands, worn before listeners. It doesn’t sound like the single most glowing endorsement of a song (or of an album, for that matter), but the way”Whisper” plays is a flawless opener for the end of the road; even listeners who have only JUST become acquainted with Jason Isbell already understand where the singer is coming from, and that he reaches this emotional peak on his first album and AT THIS PLACE on his first album is incredibly gratifying. The stance of the song and the singer within it is hypnotic and holds listeners yet again. From there, Isbell staggers down to his local roadhouse for a few drinks (and most of the mistakes which tend to come with them) in “Crystal Clear” before owning those mistakes with a scruffy and rough guitar tone (“She took my in her arms when no one else would have me”) for backing on “The Assassin” and then finally finding the peace in the valley between the smooth guitar licks and the warm memories which close the album in “Racetrack Romeo.” Now, running side-by-side through the album, an obvious argument for paring this double album down from two records to one could easily be made but, given that this presentation of Sirens of the Ditch is a reissue, such decisions are far too late now. In that way, the obvious argument becomes that Sirens of the Ditch is now a presentation of its moment – and comes warts and all from Jason Isbell.

 Reading that last line back, I realize that I can’t end my review there – trying to do that would do an incredible disservice to both the album and the artist who conceived it. That said, let’s look at it this way: by the time Jason Isbell released Sirens of the Ditch, he had already paid his dues with Drive-By Truckers – and Sirens of the Ditch is a reflection of an artist trying earnestly to prove that he can stand on his own. And the album does work, in that regard; the songs are great and do easily stand as an album which presents a wholly unique and solid image of the artist. Of course, Jason Isbell would go on to build a well-respected career standing apart from his peers and, for those who came to the party late, finding Sirens of the Ditch with the help of this reissue is a great gift. It took me a while, but I’m definitely glad I found it.

https://www.jasonisbell.com/ 

Bill Adams

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.