Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Drive-By Truckers
Brighter Than Creation's Dark
Score: 7

Those Truckers sure can spin a tale. Split up into four "sides," Brighter Than Creation's Dark fills its more than 75 minutes with characters from smalltown America. Meet Lisa, the party girl who keeps turning 21. Meet Bob, the middle-age misfit who cares for his "mess" of a mother. Meet soldier Tony's worried wife. Nobody has it easy.

In a place where there's more dust than money, these folks and others grapple with circumstance and personal demons. "Daddy Needs a Drink" peels away a layer each time Patterson Hood rasps a reason why Daddy needs one, exposing the fact that Daddy's always drinking.

Bassist Shonna Tucker takes the mike for "The Purgatory Line," about waiting and waiting and waiting to find Mr. Right. The barest accompaniment gives the song texture and dimension. A few chimes from Spooner Oldham's Rhodes totter into a great expanse, a drone and a muffled kick drum its only guides. "This ain't exactly hell," Tucker sings, "It sure as hell ain't heaven."

On the side farther from heaven would be "You and Your Crystal Meth," a tale of an all-consuming addiction. Family ties and a friendship, like brain cells, disintegrate and slough away as the character becomes more dead than alive, going without food and sleep. Hood tells it from the point of view of a former friend who condemns the junkie.

"The Purgatory Line" and "You and Your Crystal Meth" stray from the band's reliable mix of Southern rock, alt-country and traditional country, creating soundscapes notable for their restraint. The latter uses just a treated piano and pedal steel to support Hood's vocals. Both tracks indicate the Truckers' willingness to carve out more room to roam, and go a long way toward keeping the album unpredictable.

Of course, their specialty involves riffage, and the three-guitar shred attack of "That Man I Shot" makes it the album's de facto centerpiece. The "I" in the song, a man in a foreign land (likely a soldier or a peacekeeper), finds himself haunted after killing an assailant in self-defense. Long after the adrenaline has subsided, the scene replays in the survivor's mind. He grapples with his actions. Did that guy have a family, too? Was he just protecting his turf? "Maybe I was in his yard," he ponders. Merely a pawn in a war, he struggles to reconcile his conscience --- even questioning his sanity --- and finds the big picture to be an unacceptable shade of gray.

In another guitar-driven song worthy of discussion, "The Righteous Path," Hood tells of two men, lifelong friends. One is successful but faces serious financial problems. The other is a walking disaster: ex-wives, abandoned kids, trouble with the law. Both believe they're on the right track. And though the successful one says his friend isn't even close, he believes there's only "a thin thin line" between their situations.

When the road of life involves going "80 miles an hour with a worn-out map," it's easy to see why.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Exploring the space

Some People Have
Real Problems

Score: 6

The third full-length from Sia shows that she's progressing as a solo artist. The Australian singer, now probably most notable for her hit "Breathe Me," anchored some of the best songs on Zero 7's early albums. When she's away from her electronica collaborators, she's free to explore the space beyond their chillout framework. Sometimes that leads to unexpected pleasures. Sometimes it leads to pitfalls. Some People Have Real Problems has some of both.

In many cases, Sia pushes herself vocally, pulling off brassy bellows and soaring melodies in addition to the easy-and-deliberate style that is her hallmark. It's a surprise, considering the aural yarn that is her standard range, always soft and lightly frayed.

She rises to the challenge delivered by the opening of "Day Too Soon," a gentle lope put forth by her rhythm section of bassist Sam Dixon, drummer Joey Waronker, guitarist Gus Seyffert, and keyboardists Ed Stevens and Larry Goldings. It calls for some heat, and Sia brings a warmth that, while not quite soul, is closer to neo-soul than to pop. This carries into the next track, "You Have Been Loved," a slow-burner that Sia squeezes even more feeling out of.

"Electric Bird" and "Beautiful Calm Driving" similarly find her testing the waters, both having choruses requiring plenty of lung power. "Electric Bird" likewise features a bevy of horns that adds vigor and boldness to Sia's feathered symbolism.

Other songs, it's clear, were no sweat. "Little Black Sandals" harkens back to her Zero 7 contributions, and the bass line and drum tempo could have been lifted from any one of their albums. "Lullaby" turns down the lights with its guitar and piano parts played ever so delicately. The way Sia's voice wavers on a few verses fits the Kinks cover "I Go to Sleep," and the string section is a nice touch.

Throughout the album, though, Sia gives up ground here and there. "Playground" has a fidgety chorus. "Death by Chocolate" goes overboard (the line "tears on your pillow" is an early warning) as Sia and a choir have a Celine Dion flashback, which isn't bad per se, but the song isn't dramatic enough to merit it, nor is it melodramatic enough to be boosted into the realm of camp. Still, it's better than "Academia," a jumble of mixed metaphors ("And if you are a number, you're infinity plus one / And if I am four words, then I am 'Needing of your love'").

Clearly, ambition doesn't guarantee good songs, but it does help a singer grow. And Sia has definitely grown.