By: DoSo (Special to CoS)
A lot has gone down with Drive-By Truckers over the past couple of years. They parted ways with guitar hero and killer songwriter Jason Isbell, bassist Shonna Tucker and Isbell divorced, pedal steel player John Neff rejoined the band as a permanent member, legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham came on as a temporary (?) bandmate and they nearly broke up after an unfulfilling tour opening for The Black Crowes. Most of this happened in the twelve month period following the 2006 release of their last album A Blessing and a Curse, which judging by the general reaction of fans and critics, was a bit of a step back for the band.
In the spring of 2007, the band seemed to start to find their way back. They were out of debt and embarking on their mostly acoustic Dirt Underneath tour which would feature three legs consisting of two to three weeks worth of dates per leg. Enough to pay the bills, but nothing too crazy.
Along the way, the new songs were written, shared and learned during sound checks and debuted on stage. The band convened in the studio to record their new trove of tunes including nine new songs from Mike Cooley (three times his typical output) and three songs from Tucker who had never contributed her own material. They ended up with the 19 songs that would become Brighter Than Creations Dark, an album hailed by many a publication as one of their best efforts.
To be certain, there are a lot of wonderful songs on the record. It starts off not unlike their best previous disc, Decoration Day, with the thoughtful acoustic strains of lead Trucker Patterson Hoods Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife followed by the fuzzy punch of Cooleys Three Dimes Down. The ending is great, too: Cooley gets his last words on the penultimate track, A Ghost to Most (which may or may not be about how difficult it is for him to find a suit that fits) and Patterson sends us off with the airy late night strains of Monument Valley.
The middle, on the other hand, could use some help. While Hood delivers many of the best moments on the album, hes also responsible for two of its biggest clunkers. The Righteous Path grinds the listener with a fatiguing monotone vocal melody while You and Your Crystal Meth sounds like a drunken home recording experiment gone wrong.
Cooley doesnt whiff quite as spectacularly, but he does end up having a number of songs that are unmemorable at best and sound like a bad joke at worst. Bob is particularly egregious for the faux-Johnny Cash vocals and Lisas Birthday is a perfectly bland country ditty that runs into the ditch before it can ever get going.
Unexpectedly, Tucker comes through with perhaps the best, most heartfelt song on the album in Im Sorry, Huston, a wonderful ballad which whets the appetite for more. Her other two pieces, Home Field Advantage and Purgatory Line dont quite live up to the promise of Huston, however. Her biggest contribution to the record beyond her solid bass playing is the presence of her backing vocals, particularly on Hoods tunes. She blends beautifully with his voice and adds a new dimension to the vocals that hasnt been heard on a DBT release since Kelly Hogan lent her talents to a couple of tunes on Southern Rock Opera.
The knee-jerk analysis would be that the record suffers from a songwriting standpoint because Isbell is missing, that doesnt quite cut it. There’s a very good record here; the problem is the band failed to edit themselves and they should have cut at least two tracks each from Hood, Cooley and Tucker. The result would be a very good, focused record with a bunch of great songs rather than a meandering disc with a number of dead spots. Which isnt to say that Brighter Than Creations Dark is a bad album; its just not as good as it could have been. I still recommend buying it for the highlights and I strongly suggest catching them live as theyre likely to be touring just about all year long.