Jason Isbell‘s solo debut, “Sirens of the Ditch,” was a record that was four years in the making, recorded when Isbell’s schedule with Drive-by Truckers would allow, and it did feel like a bit more of a patchwork than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s eponymous 2009 release, all of which was recorded with just his band (save for a few horns) over a much shorter period. However, the 400 Unit album sounded so similar from song to song that things ran together a bit too much, and while the album was still a testament to Isbell strength as a songwriter, there was nothing that quite rivaled the best moments on “Sirens of the Ditch.”
On “Here We Rest,” Isbell and his band stretch out a little more, adding more acoustic sounds to their rock; there’s even some nice R&B on “Heart on a String,” originally performed by Candi Staton. And the rock that is here is better, too — especially on the fun and loose, “Never Could Believe”. The opener, “Alabama Pines,” which has some beautiful violin is just hypnotic in it’s own rootsy kind of way. Isbell even finds a way to make the refrain of “Codeine” truly catchy (The refrain is, “Cause one of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine,” but trust me it’s great.). It is an album of mostly melancholy material, but the songs never wallow in it (Isbell mentions that he spent more time at home in Alabama lately, and the hard economic times there informed these songs. The album’s title is Alabama’s original state motto.). The closer, “Tour of Duty,” a song about soldier coming home wanting to get normal life started again, seems to bring the album to an end on a note of hope for better things to come (The here mandolin helps here — it’s too bright of an instrument for anyone to feel too bad when it’s played well.) . The song, whose chorus is, “I’ve done by tour of duty. Now I’m home, and I ain’t leaving here again.” in it’s own way, is a bit of an echo, or maybe a fulfillment, of the opener’s chorus (“Somebody take me home to those Alabama pines.”).
Front to back it’s Isbell best set of songs. It’s expansive, covering many themes (drugs, war, religion, loneliness, love, lust) and many sounds, but it’s also specific. We’ve known about Jason Isbell’s strengths as a songwriter for a while now. “Here We Rest” reinforces that, and it also announces the true arrival of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. This is a great band and a great album.
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