platters (2008-03)

Creative Noise

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Drive-By Truckers keep truckinâ’ while Magnetic Fields find Distortion

Drive-By Truckers Brighter Than Creationâ’s Dark (New West) How have the Drive-By Truckers responded to the loss of Jason Isbell, up til early 2007 one of the band's three primary songwriters, and its ace guitarist? Better than anyone had cause to expect. With long-time studio contributor and pedal steel/guitarist John Neff finally pitching in full-time as Isbell's replacement, the band has released a sweeping and elegantly beautiful 19-track epic that ranks with the band's best.

Rather than trying to fake their way through the gaps once filled by Isbell's Stones-y swagger, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have chosen to play to their strengthsâ"and to their places in life, as both of them are now family men at or approaching middle ageâ"with a collection of songs that owe more to Haggard, Cash and George Jones than to anyone named Van Zant. Cooley checks in with a handful of his trademark narrativesâ"brooding cautionary tales like â“Self Destructive Zones,â” world-weary lamentations like â“Lisa's Birthday.â” Cooley's stark monologues inevitably account for at least one of the two best tracks on any given DBT album, and his best songs on Creationâ’s Dark stand out even among the highlights of his personal oeuvre.

Patterson Hood, meanwhile, touches base with his plaintive rasp on his favored themesâ"family dysfunction (â“Daddy Needs a Drink,â” â“Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wifeâ”), substance abuse (â“You and Your Crystal Methâ”). But his touch is lighter hereâ"his tracks are largely slow- to mid-tempo, with more attention to craft and diminished lip service to southern rock bombast.

And craft is ultimately what sets this collection apart from most other DBT records. In terms of songwriting, thereâ’s nary a filler track to be found among the albumâ’s 19 selections, and the melodies are stronger than those on any Truckers outing to date. And the arrangements are equally stellar; whereas most DBT albums sound as if they were (mostly) hammered out in the throes of a beery pique, Creationâ’s Dark sounds orchestratedâ"in the very best sense of the word.

But save the best for last: perhaps the real epiphany of Brighter Than Creationâ’s Dark is the emergence of bassist Shonna Tuckerâ"who is, ironically and perhaps fittingly, Isbellâ’s ex-wifeâ"as both singer and songwriter. Her hat-trick contribution showcases a more-than-capable songwriter with the voice of a classic country chanteuse; it raises the question of why the DBT boysâ’ club has kept Tucker tethered to a bass amp, voiceless, since 2003. Maybe it took the loss of Isbellâ’s estimable talents to galvanize DBT into letting this hidden gem finally shine through. (Mike Gibson)

The Magnetic Fields Distortion (Nonesuch) Sometimes Stephin Merrittâ’s stunts work and sometimes they donâ’t. The three-disc 69 Love Songs set rose well above its origins as a cycle of genre exercises, but the songs on i, the titles of which all started with the letter â“i,â” felt forced and stilted. Too often theyâ’re conceits that Merritt cares about more than anyone else possibly could. The good news for Distortion is that the gimmick implied by the album title isnâ’t really a gimmick at all; itâ’s just a framework for Merrittâ’s production and arrangement. The songs here are vintage Merritt: wry, effacing (â“Sober, youâ’re old and ugly/Shitfaced, who needs a mirror,â” he sings on â“Too Drunk to Dreamâ”), impeccably constructed, and still offer plenty of evidence for anyone who wants to compare him to Noël Coward. But theyâ’re delivered through the haze of Merrittâ’s pronounced fascination with the Jesus and Mary Chainâ’s Psychocandy, with big electric guitars at the forefront and everything shrouded in thick, distorted amplification. Itâ’s a welcome detour from Merrittâ’s arch cabaret act; the pleasures provided by the garage-rock production and bright melodies of â“California Girls,â” â“Till the Bitter Endâ” (both sung by long-time Magnetic Fields collaborator Shirley Simms), â“Zombie Boy,â” and the opening instrumental â“Three-Wayâ” may be simple and straightforward, but theyâ’re substantial. (Matthew Everett)

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