J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Playlists, podcasts and music from WQFS Greensboro's J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Now Departing:
Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark

Drive-By Truckers
Brighter Than Creation's Dark
(New West ; 2008)

I never thought I'd say this about the Drive-by Truckers, but they really needed this to be a good album. The last couple of years have been tumultuous, from a critical perspective, for the band. 2006's A Blessing and a Curse was the first Truckers album I'd ever bought that I could heartily consider a let-down. The songwriting seemed stilted and uninspired in a way that it had never sounded before. While it wasn't a bad album, it wasn't great, and greatness was what I was used to from DBT.

Then what everyone assumed would eventually happen happened. Any band that can keep three really talented songwriters yolked together for three albums deserves a tip of the hat, but obviously it had hit a wall with A Blessing and a Curse and, for whatever reasons, Jason Isbell left the band. Isbell had seemed to light a fire under the band from the moment of his joining and when he left and put out the fantastic Sirens of the Ditch last year, I began to wonder what the first Truckers record since Southern Rock Opera to not feature Isbell was going to sound like.

The answer is surprising and expected at the same time. We'll start with the latter. Brighter than Creation's Dark feels more like Southern Rock Opera in spots than any record they've done since. Perhaps this is because of the returning dominance of just the original duo of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley to the songwriting, but the album's length plays into this as well. At 19 songs and just over 75 minutes, it's an intimidating record, size wise. I raised an eyebrow looking at the track listing, wondering if this was going to be too much, if perhaps they hadn't let their internal editor work and had instead created an album that would be unwieldy and meandering. The songs, however, are uniformly strong, and Mike Cooley contributes the most songs that I can remember him ever adding to a DBT record, penning 7 of the 19 tracks. "3 Dimes Down" is the typical Cooley rocker that treads in well-worn, but still fist-pump-inducing, paths. "A Ghost to Most" is another of his contemplative ballads that still carries a bit of power. But Cooley also cranks out a few of the most traditional-country songs that have come from the band. "Perfect Timing" and "Lisa's Birthday" are the band truly reigning themselves in to create some sharp genre exercises that really work within their placement on the album.

Helping in creating these pieces is the fact that the band has expanded to five (really, six) members, adding guitarist John Neff and keyboardist Spooner Oldham. While Oldham isn't an official member, he has been playing in the touring incarnation and his contributions are all over the album. The band's size and variety has allowed them to give nuance to songs that might otherwise have contributed to this album being just too long to work. Opener "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife" is gorgeous, slow and one of the most heartfelt (and heartbreaking) songs Hood has written. "Daddy Needs a Drink" and "The Home Front" (one of two Iraq war themed songs by Hood on the album) also take advantage of the expanded instrumentation and make some really outstanding moments that are destined to be classics in the band's oeuvre. "The Purgatory Line" is one of the best examples of this expansion on the album, turning in a song that actually recalls some of the alt-country universe that Neko Case and Jesse Sykes have explored.

Which brings me to one of the most surprising moments on the record: the debut of bassist Shonna Tucker as a songwriter. She contributes three songs here: the aforementioned "The Purgatory Line," "I'm Sorry Huston" and "Home Field Advantage." The last one is a serviceable, but fairly rote song. The two that really soar are both plaintive, classic weepers; "I'm Sorry Huston" is the first of Tucker's songs on the album, and where she has had a backing role as a vocalist before, this is her first center stage performance. It reveals her as a classic country crooner - think Neko Case or Patsy Cline, but not quite as versatile as either one.

Regardless, the songs, especially "The Purgatory Line," add a new dimension to the Truckers' sound, and this is exactly the sort of shift the band needed. The band has entered an identifiable third phase of their career: the first capped by Southern Rock Opera, the second by Isbell's departure. While the band's common threads have been a constant, like any good group, they know when it's time to head out for new territory. Brighter than Creation's Dark is the marker at the head of a new trail, one already returning rewarding dividends, on the way to somewhere really promising for one of America's best rock and roll outfits.

Rating: E(xcellent)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Drive-By Truckers - "The Righteous Path"

Drive-By Truckers - "3 Dimes Down"

Drive-By Truckers - "The Purgatory Line"

Download Brighter than Creation's Dark (starting Tuesday the 22nd) from EMusic.

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  • At 11:16 PM, January 20, 2008, Blogger sean coon said…

    great review, josh. i came to the same conclusion. and i'll be at the orange peel on 3/29 to check them out for the 4th time!

  • At 11:20 PM, January 20, 2008, Blogger J. Neas said…

    I am planning on being there myself. It'll be my 9th time. They are the most consistently entertaining live band I've ever seen - it never gets old seeing them live. And I can't wait to hear this album in a live setting. We'll have to make sure we meet up!

  • At 4:43 PM, January 21, 2008, Blogger Satisfied '75 said…

    glad you are on board with this one; it's just great.

  • At 10:18 PM, January 21, 2008, Blogger Justin said…

    I don't know that it will be available on eMusic - New West hasn't had new music on the site for about a year now.

  • At 10:25 PM, January 21, 2008, Blogger J. Neas said…

    Thanks for the heads up, Justin. You can at least get all of the previous Truckers releases (except for Alabama Ass Whoopin') through EMusic.

  • At 10:19 AM, January 30, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great review! I haven't heard too much by them before, but am going to get an album... which do you suggest I start with?

  • At 11:01 AM, January 30, 2008, Blogger J. Neas said…

    Well, my personal recommendation would be to start with either Decoration Day or The Dirty South, both of which are simply outstanding. If you find you enjoy those, Southern Rock Opera is pretty amazing as well. From there on, if you like those, you can't go wrong with any of them. The new one isn't a terrible place to start, but it might make more sense within the context of some of their earlier work. Enjoy!


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