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It’s too bad Jason Isbell’s gone solo, but with his ex-wife Shonna Tucker taking a bigger role, Drive-By Truckers still have three distinctive lead vocalists. Guitarist John Neff, a long-time collaborator, is now an official full member, and proves his mettle whether rocking hard or adding shimmering pedal steel to mournful ballads. The result is an effective country-rock/Southern rock hybrid, with plenty of slide guitar and pedal steel, plus Spooner Oldham adding keyboards to three-quarters of the tracks. Brighter coheres wonderfully despite its surprising amount of variety. Not so much variety, though, as to follow in the footsteps of their 2006 half-hearted stab at attracting VH1 viewers with two lame tracks with mainstream arrangements and production.
The Truckers have long specialized in gritty portrayals of the New South’s sordid sides. A few titles such as “Daddy Needs a Drink,” “You and Your Crystal Meth,” and “A Ghost to Most” give an idea of the dirty soap operas that play out across this epic album, but the black humor – usually paired with a profound empathy – runs deep through most of the 19 songs. There are many memorable character portrayals, but none leaves a bigger impression than the Iraqi war vet obsessing about “That Man I Shot,” with Patterson Hood’s ragged vocal tone the perfect vehicle for his expression. This is as dark an album as the Truckers have made, and though it’s one long-ass CD (75 minutes) and may be best absorbed in sections, the quality of the writing makes it compelling throughout.
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