Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr By the time he left the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell had only written a handful of songs, but some of them were standouts. Sirens of the Ditch (2007) gave him the chance to showcase his own songwriting skills as well as his own musical vision, something toned down from the DBT Southern rock attack. Even with his old bandmates making appearances, Isbell offered his own approach, pulling in a variety of musical influences. He was sharp lyrically, but not yet as skilled as he’d become. A new deluxe edition of the album serves as a reminder not only of how he’s grown as an artist, but also of how little he needed to. The world of Sirens largely comes from the rural South. “In a Razor Town” captures the feel of a village slowly dying, but it digs into the effects that death has on a relationship. “Down in a Hole” looks at a root of such troubles, in this case a man or men who turn the place over through industry (possibly coal mining) and hypocritical religion. The influence of money and false morality tears at the community, offering only false hope. There’s no sense of a concept album here, of course, and Isbell handles other topics, just covered in the same sort of dust that informs these tracks. “Try” makes some blunt comments on relationship dynamics, and “Dress Blues” mourns a friend who died in combat. Both of these songs are effective if a little heavy-handed, with the latter’s poignancy overcoming any potential obviousness. Nothing here really moves Isbell away from country music, the place where he’s usually dumped despite the sorts of difficult topics and alienation he addresses on, say, The Nashville Sound. Musically, it’s clear why he fits Music City even if it’s not precise. Later Isbell albums would sound more focused, but Sirens does a little genre-hopping within the broad fields of Americana and even pop. “Grown” could have been a mid-’90s pop radio staple, and would have blended in too easily. Opener “Brand New Kind of Actress” continues the sort of Southern rock that would have been expected from an ex-Trucker. Other tracks are folkier, countrier or full of Memphis Soul. Even so, Isbell sounds less like an artist finding himself and more like one exploring a sort of opening, whether leaving a dying farming town or leaving the strictures of a previous band. This new deluxe edition of Sirens adds four bonus tracks that offer little additional insight. The just-fine tracks don’t stand up to the 11 original cuts, a reminder that artists and their colleagues usually pick right the first time through. “Crystal Clear” adds some boogie with its straightforward meth story while “Racetrack Romeo” retreads the sounds of “Grown.” None of them offer the challenge of something like “Shotgun Wedding,” which combines a catchy hook with a moving pulse to tell a strange story, the pop sounds giving way to the reality of an assaulter and a troubled admirer/stalker with his own complicity. That sort of narrative makes for complicated listening without sacrificing tunefulness. Isbell creates his own people and places, inviting us into that world while asking us to question our own, sometimes better when he does it obliquely (“Shotgun Wedding”) rather than head-on (“The Devil is My Running Mate”). A decade later, Sirens of the Ditch holds up, a vital part of the artist’s catalog rather than his foot-finding. Isbell’s writing would improve, but that’s more a credit to his recent work than a criticism of this early material.