Jason Isbell: Streetlights, Cigarettes & Wine

By: Dennis Cook

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit by Allison V. Smith
Naming one's album after themselves and their band has connotations as thick as any title. Without some other context one is left to assume that what they put on the stereo is representative of something central and true about the band in question. With some bands it might be simple laziness but the sophomore solo effort from Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit serves as a statement of purpose, a defining document of Isbell as an artist away from his pedigree in Drive-By Truckers. On Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit (released February 17 on Lightning Rod Records), his solo vision comes into its own.

"That's great to hear! It was my goal to lay down some criteria about what kind of music I want to make," says Isbell. "With this one I feel like I've made an album that's extremely close to my favorite kinds of music to listen to."

In a nutshell, Isbell and his 400 Unit - Derry DeBorja (keyboards), Jimbo Hart (bass), Browan Lollar (guitar) and a series of drummers but currently Chad Gamble - are like a punk rock band that really learned to play their instruments and sing.

"We'll take that. That's about as good as it gets," chuckles Isbell. "I wasn't into punk until I was a bit older. Touring with the Truckers I was exposed to a WHOLE bunch of punk rock. Mostly what I listened to when I was younger was arena rock, old country music and what was on the radio in the '80s. There was a lot of good pop music on the radio in those days, which gets underrated for the most part. But I got exposed to a lot of punk with the Truckers and that bled into what I choose to do now. It's almost the only way to approach it onstage. If you're doing a good job it's bound to come out with that same sort of energy."

While even his own press materials put him in the lineage of Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Tony Joe White and Arthur Alexander – all fitting reference points – that classic-minded outlook gives short shrift to his more contemporary echoes like Todd Snider and Marshall Crenshaw. The new record's opening tracks, "Seven-Mile Island" and "Sunstroke," are very modern sounding and the kind of thing he'd never likely have made in the Truckers, who he left in early 2007.

Jason Isbell by F. Yang
"That was a goal. I wanted to make something that was, in some ways, very modern," says Isbell, who let the studio play a stronger role this time out. "We had a lot of help. We all produced it together. Matt Pence [Centro-matic, South San Gabriel] has The Echo Lab over in Texas and we brought him over to play drums on it and he helped out with production, too. We just had a whole lot of ideas bouncing around to tinker with, a lot of different sounds to go for, and I thought it was really easy to do that, easy to make the studio itself the bigger instrument. None of these songs had been played live at all, in fact most of them the band hadn't heard yet before we went into the studio. I know everyone can't afford to do that financially but we finally got to the point where we could go in and set up shop."

Pence is an inspired choice to add to the 400 Unit's mix, a fantastic drummer but more than that, a musician with big ears and good instincts about using what he's learned over the years. Pence, and really all the guys in South San Gabriel and Centro-matic, are secret weapons in the world of rock. "They really are! Hell, in the world of polka – Matt has a Grammy for the Brave Combo record [2004 s Let's Kiss, which Pence helped engineer/produce]. He's really one of the most intelligent, resourceful people I've ever met," offers Isbell.

Parts of Isbell's catalog share a similar vibe to Centro-matic/SSG main man (and JamBase fave) Will Johnson, an elusive catchiness that's certainly not mainstream but also doesn't descend into the indie realm's naval gazing.

"I definitely don't mind hearing that at all. I even went out for a little bit with [Centro-matic] and just played guitar to be in the band for a few weeks, just to ride around in the van with them a couple years ago," says Isbell. "Every time we've played with them or the Truckers played with them I almost always joined them onstage for their whole set. I even played bass with them one night in Park City, Utah. That didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped [laughs]. The bass player didn't make it for some reason so I filled in for one night. There's a lot going on with them and it's all pretty equal parts."

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