Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – 2009 (Lightning Rod)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

"Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers" goes the line from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" . And now this corner of Dixie has Jason Isbell, who amicably split with Drive-By Truckers in 2007. While the Truckers' work leaned towards song suites and concept albums, Isbell aims at old-fashioned melody and plainspoken truths. He turns some deft phrases on this, his second solo effort, and never spares himself from his own critical eye. On Sunstroke, he calls out a former lover, "They tell me you walk on the water now/ I know who showed you the stones."

The music takes trips to steel guitar-fueled atmosphere (Seven Mile Island), waltz-time blues, and raucous rock (Good). Isbell's voice isn't as full of range as his songwriting imagination - one misses Sam Cooke dearly in the soul revue number, No Choice In the Matter. But that doesn't keep him and the tight work of the band from delivering the goods. The 400 Unit is affectionately named after a local psych ward, and the organ work and chunky drums in particular mesh with Isbell's ideas. Often on the record we meet characters that want to make connections, but there are some planks missing in the bridges - is it worth the trip to try anyway? For one of the best releases in a long time, the answer is yes.