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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

The Drive-By Truckers’ Dark Days

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When the Drive-By Truckers returned to touring last year, singer/guitarist Patterson Hood was eager to get back on the road. Just 18 months earlier, though, the feeling within the band from Athens, Ga., couldn't have been more different.

"We were burned out and we were tired and we were kind of angry and frustrated," Hood says. "We had built this machine and all of a sudden we realized the machine was driving us. We weren't driving the machine anymore. And we started trying to get control of the wheel and we started going into a bit of a spin. It's really miraculous that this band didn't break up."

A split nearly did occur. As touring wound down in fall 2006, Hood and his band mate of more than 20 years, guitarist/singer Mike Cooley, got together in the bus during a tour stop in Louisville, Ky., and faced the question head-on of whether the Drive-By Truckers had run its course.

After considerable discussion, they realized they wanted to continue the band, but changes had to happen. The biggest one was the departure of guitarist/singer Jason Isbell, who had joined the Truckers in 2001. Hood says Isbell had grown increasingly frustrated in the Truckers. With Hood and Cooley as primary songwriters, the group couldn't offer the creative outlet Isbell really needed. Isbell has since launched a solo career.

Perhaps what the band needed most, though, was just a breather.

Since releasing its second CD, Pizza Deliverance, in 1999, the band had been on a nonstop cycle of touring that, except for very brief breaks, was only interrupted by quick stints in studios to record the five albums that led up to last year's Brighter Than Creation's Dark.

The strain was showing, with some fans complaining about the quality of 2006's A Blessing and a Curse. That CD scaled back on the band's more eclectic musical tendencies, focusing instead on a fairly straight-ahead roots-rock sound.

"We weren't happy campers, and I can hear all of that in the record when I hear it now," Hood says.

But Hood says he has no mixed feelings about Brighter Than Creation's Dark. The album finds the Drive-By Truckers returning to their sprawling musical ways. At 19 songs, it may be the most stylistically diverse Drive-By Truckers CD yet.

In addition to showcasing the band's bare-knuckled Southern-tinged rock, the album also lets the band's country roots-an influence that had been largely absent since their early albums-re-emerge on songs like "Lisa's Birthday" and "Bob." The set is rounded out by quieter yet equally intense material like the ghostly "You and Your Crystal Meth."

Hood puts Brighter Than Creation's Dark in a class with the best Drive-By Truckers albums, a view shared by plenty of critics.

"I forever will have a sweet spot in my heart for this one," Hood says. "This one, [2003's] Decoration Day and Pizza Deliverance are the three that are just kind of sentimental to me on a personal level because they were the three that were fun to make, and each in very different ways."

The Drive-By Truckers play an 8 p.m. show at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Feb. 25.