Jason Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001 to support them on their Southern Rock Opera tour; he left the band in 2007. In between, he worked with them on three albums that contain some of my all-time favorite songs. It’s a shame he left the band. I view this as a real Rogers/Gilmore, Plant/Page, McCartney/Lennon kind of thing — neither he nor they were as good without the other. But I’m sure he had his reasons and I should get over it.
Isbell’s first two solo albums (the second one was with the 400 Unit) were something of a disappointment to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something a little too formal, too tidy, too polite about them. Too much of DBT’s ragged glory had been stripped out.
I’m happy to report that Isbell’s latest album with the 400 Unit — Here We Rest — is a huge step forward. Isbell’s voice has gotten softer somehow, more rounded and worn and comfortable. The songs are laid back and playful, with more funk and R&B sprinkled over the Muscle Shoals country rock. A little bit of a back-porch vibe has been restored. If you’re planning a sunny BBQ any time soon you’re going to want this on your iPod.
This is the most country tune on the album, a nice little gem called “Codeine.”
While I’ve got you here, it’s worth your time to watch this video. It’s Isbell in 2006, still touring with DBT, performing his song “Dress Blues.” It would later be reworked for the first 400 Unit album, but this version is way, way better than the album version. It’s one of the most gorgeous, haunting, compassionate anti-war songs you’ll ever hear: