Review Summary: A lineup change inspires a change of pace that mostly works, but falls short at times.
“There’s gonna be some fine times, there’s gonna be some pain.”
This line, which is somberly crooned by DTB frontman Patterson Hood at the end of “Monument Valley”, is a sooth-saying and relatively accurate description of the band’s latest project, the sprawling 19 track tour de force “Brighter Than Creations Dark.” Although there is far more stellar than mediocre material to be had, BTCD is the result of a period of internal upheaval that in many ways changed their sound, makeup, and overall tone. It’s a strong record, and one of the best in their catalogue, but anyone expecting a repeat of their two masterpieces “Southern Rock Opera” and “Decoration Day” may be slightly disappointed.
The Truckers built their reputation over the course of the decade by melding flag waiving Southern Hard Rock with a twist of Alternative Country, and adding splashes of straight up George Jones worshipping honky-tonk. Different flavors have always permeated their records, but in the past there was a greater lean towards rock, with the country undertones serving as a compliment and a nod to their roots. They have also usually been an ambitious bunch, taking on a 20 song concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Southern Rock Opera,” and delving into much darker themes on “Decoration Day.” Here the group is just as ambitious, covering 19 songs, but the focus is more on individual characters than some sweeping stark theme that takes many listens to absorb.
This album finds the Truckers establishing a new identity. They incorporated three lead singers and flaunted a three axe attack over the course of their previous three albums, but on BTCD we see a lineup change. Gone is songwriter, guitar player, and part time vocalist Jason Isbell, who was a major contributor to their previous releases and responsible for many of their stand out songs. Shonna Tucker, who was previously relegated to bass only and is Isbell’s ex-wife, enters as the third lead vocalist and brings with her an enormous change of tone to the album. Instead of a rebel rousing hard rock sound leading the charge, the overall feel of this album is a mixture of stark folk and straight up country, with the rock still present but almost playing a background role. Some would call this an act of maturity, and in some places it works to great effect, but the overall impression can get a bit stale over the 70 minute listen.
Regardless of the lineup changes, the guts of this band will always be the hulking Hood and the everyman Mike Cooley. Hood tends to write the more rock orientated songs and focuses on grand and deep issues, and the more country orientated Cooley specializes in combining old school country with raw human life orientated lyrics, mixed with a whole lot of humor, and melded with modern pop hooks. Cooley has a much larger presence on the record than he did in the past, and for the first time in any DBT album, he steals the show.
The DBT format is whoever writes the lyrics gets to sing the song. For the most part, the Cooley penned tracks are the saviors here. “3 Dimes Down” and “A Ghost To Most” are probably the strongest tracks on the album, the former being an out of character for Cooley straight up raucous rocker, and the latter being an unbelievably melodic and catchy Alt Country tune. An example of Cooley’s humorous wordplay shines on “Ghost to Most”, with lines like “I guess I never grew sideburns, it’s a shame with all I got to go between,” and “skeletons aint got nowhere to stick their money nobody makes britches that size.” Throughout the rest of the album, Cooley mostly presents straight up country, ranging from the hilarious “Lisa’s Birthday” to the incredibly corny but somehow effective ode to bachelor hood in “Bob.” “Perfect Timing” is Randy Travis on speed, and “Self Destructive Zones” is a snarky nod to early 90’s grunge. The chilling “Checkout Time in Vegas,” a depressing song about gun runners, completes his work.
While Hood has long been considered the frontman, he has a slightly weaker performance than usual on the record. That’s not to say he doesn’t pitch in with a few gems, but a great deal of the filler can be attributed to him and Tucker. Hood’s best rocker is “The Righteous Path,” a song about difficulty maintaining the dream in difficult times that ironically was thrown on the record at the last minute. Two of his better contributions, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” and “Daddy Needs a Drink” are both gut wrenching chilly tracks about death and struggle, the former related the thoughts of a man who just died and the latter outlining a crushing alcohol addiction and the effect it has on children. He then moves on to tackle a war-torn theme on “That Man I Shot,” and “The Homefront,” both above average in their own respect. From there he tends to drop off with weaker contributions like “You and Your Crystal Meth,” “Monument Valley,” and “Opening Act.” Overall, Hood’s worst is akin to several artists’ best, but as a cohesive piece this is not his strongest effort.
The aforementioned Tucker adds a polarizing force to the record. Those who enjoy raw, painful straight up folk will enjoy “I’m Sorry Huston” and “Purgatory Line,” but it represents too much of a change in sound and direction for my tastes. Although Tucker’s tracks lack staying power, she does have an engaging and almost heart wrenching voice, and her lyrics are above average. For some reason, as a whole, it just doesn’t work as well as it could have or is intended to.
The bottom line is despite the myriad changes to personnel and tone, this remains a very strong record and one of the best of 2008. In terms of their overall catalogue, I would put this in a tie for their third strongest release. The 19 track list is a little bombastic, and if they had pared it down to 12 it would deserve damn close to a five star rating.
Unfortunately, there is enough filler to bog it down slightly, and this concept is something that was tough to find on their two best releases. On the whole, a whole lot of pleasure and just a little pain come with the album. In today’s music world and especially in the Alt. Country genre, this is rarely accomplished. It is an improvement over their last release "A Blessing and a Curse," to be fair. At the end of the day the Truckers still rule, maybe just a little less than at their peak.