Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit


To be fair, I approach a Jason Isbell release with a bias, that is, beyond my general appreciation of the music.  I don't blame Isbell, but he left the Drive-by Truckers due to a soured relationship with their bassist, leaving them artistically less than they were before.  I mean, when that happens, shouldn't it be the bassist that hits the road rather than a songwriter and ace guitarist?

In any case, when I hear his solo release, I want to hear something that makes his departure from DBT seem somehow worth it.  It's not a fair expectation, butJason Isbell & The 400 Unit I can't help it.  And, through this his second solo release, he still hasn't lived up to it.

This doesn't mean that it isn't good, though. In fact, it starts well.  "Seven-Mile Island" has a nice shuffling beat, which is followed by "Sunstroke" (which really wanted to be a DBT song), but it's still solid.

Interestingly, the rockers ("Good," "However Long") in this set seem a bit formulaic but are needed to add some variety to an otherwise evenly paced CD.  In fact, stylistically, many tend towards Delbert McClinton's established territory of tough times, whiskey, and song, packaged in songs that are probably heard best in songwriter venues with smaller audiences.  Despite several rock guitar riffs, there is more often than not a sense of McClinton through the CD, and "Cigarettes and Wine" and "No Choice in the Matter" measure up to McClinton's better songs.

Isbell remains an excellent lyricist, typically writing in narratives that are insightful or cutting, but rarely cynical ("Streetlights," "Soldiers Get Strange").  Overall, this CD is a solid set of songs and shows his solo direction a little more clearly than his initial CD, Sirens of the Ditch.  But with a limited vocal range and a delivery that is suited to certain styles of song structures, he may also end up like McClinton, looking back on a solid catalogue, but with only a handful of tunes that are remembered later.  That doesn't mean he isn't worth a listen.

Recommended Songs: "Seven-Mile Island," "No Choice in the Matter"

Rating: 3 of 5 Stars.


  1. Spoken like a true Trucker fan. Album is nominated for Album of the Year at this year AMA's. And when your style is changing and it begins to create a rift in the band, throw in a divorce with a member of said band it doesn't take much to see what would happen. I love how DBT fans thought when Jason left he was like a cut flat worm he was going to reform a new DBT sounding band. When he has always had his own sound. It was just always funneled thru the Truckers.

  2. I don't disagree about his sound or his songs, but three or four of his songs, mixed with Hood's and Patterson's, took the songwriting pressure off of each as their best efforts made it to the record. DBT's last CD is clearly suffering from his absence. Cooley keeps putting new words to the same tunes, and Hood's ideas ran dry. Shonna's songs aren't awful, but they don't measure up to the standards of their previous work.

    That chapter is done, though, and I'll continue to listen to what Isbell creates.

  3. You said the bassist should have left DBT instead of Isbell, that his leaving left the band worse. Maybe Jason Isbell left DBT because he was harder to deal with than the bassist. If I had a band, and I do, I would prefer it to include people who want to work together.

  4. Thanks for posting! I come to it as a fan, not someone who has to contend with the personalities. Isbell was gold for at least three strong songs per album, which displaces lesser efforts from Hood and Cooley that otherwise have to fill the gap. It's kind of like the Beatles without George Harrison. Your point is taken.

  5. And I hope to see Isbell in a couple weeks in concert here in Atlanta :)