Thursday, March 27, 2008

Album Review: Brighter Than Creations Dark

Drive By Truckers
Brighter Than Creations Dark
New West Records 2008

The Drive By Truckers have paid their dues and then some. Performing two and half hour shows with a different setlist every night, whether they play to a sold out crowd or a half full club, the Truckers perform every song like it is their last and they’ve been doing it for over 10 years.

This approach to live shows has allowed the band to ride a swell of increasing popularity and musical growth that began with 2001's The Southern Rock Opera and continued through 2003s Decoration Day, 2004s The Dirty South and cresting with 2006s A Blessing and a Curse.

Of course, nothing lasts forever.

A potent cocktail of nonstop touring, marital strife between bassist Shonna Tucker and vocalist/guitarist Jason Isbell and the usual dash of creative differences led to the band taking their first extended break from the road at the end of 2006/early 2007. This time period also saw the departure of Jason Isbell from the band.

What the Truckers would do next was anybody’s guess. The band's reinvention began with the largely acoustic The Dirt Underneath tour in 2007 which saw DBT alumni Jeff Neff return to the band on guitar/pedal steel, as well as the part time addition of legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham.

A creative songwriting spark was allowed to grow into a full artistic fire, and the fruits of that tour yielded Brighter Than Creations Dark, a 19 song opus that pushes the band's roughed up country roots to the front burner and introduces the singing and songwriting talents of bassist Shonna Tucker. It also marks the re-emergence of longtime Trucker Mike Cooley's songwriting contributions to the fold, producing some of the album’s shining moments.

Main trucker Patterson Hood also contributes strong material, beginning with lead track, "Two Daughters & a Beautiful Wife", a moving narrative about a fallen soldier contemplating his life as he approaches the afterlife. "Is there vengeance up in heaven? / Are those things left behind? / Maybe everyday is Saturday morning / Two daughters and a wife / Two daughters and a beautiful wife”.

Where 2006s A Blessing and a Curse had a studio sheen that attempted to gloss over the rough edges of the band’s sound, Brighter Than Creations Dark returns DBT’s ragged glory in loud, bloozey songs like “The Righteous Path”, “ Three Dimes Down” and “A Ghost to Most”, the latter two being some of Cooley’s finer songwriting moments.

The additions of Spooner Oldham on keys and Jeff Neff on pedal steel also allow the band to rediscover its country impulses. Cooley’s “Perfect Timing” seems destined to be played on a road trip through the back roads of the US, while “Lisa’s Birthday” sounds like an undiscovered Willey Nelson honkeytonk tune. Hood’s cinematic “The Opening Act” lets Neff’s pedal steel work shine over deft percussion by drummer Brad “Ezb” Morgan.

Bassist Shonna Tucker makes her singing and songwriting debut on BTCD, and the results for the most part are positive. Her country-inflected vocals are sugary sweetness over the melancholy “I’m Sorry Houston”. Elsewhere, her R&B influences elevate “Home Field Advantage” as she croons like a soul queen scorning a lover for attempting to mess with her.

At 19 songs, Brighter Than Creations Dark is a lot to take in, even months after its release. One could argue that some editing would have yielded a leaner, meaner record, but lean and mean have never been in the Truckers vocabulary. Songs consistently re-reveal themselves while other standout tracks take a temporary backseat, but one thing remains certain: The Drive by Truckers continue their journey as one of rocks best and underrated bands.

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