Catch-up time on 2012 releases continues. Here's another trio of initial impressions of notable albums from the very recent past.
Patterson Hood: Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Patterson Hood is best known as one of the co-founders of the planet's best Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers. Many years from now, with some historical distance, the Southern qualifier may not even be needed when critics debate what the best rock band of the 21st century was, but that's an argument for another time I probably won't be around to make. It's simpler to say that when a new Truckers record slips out, it's an event that usually leaves me shaking my head and wondering, "How do they keep cranking out all these amazing songs?" The same has held true when Hood has gone solo, and his third crack at it emerged in September.
Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance contains another set of great songs, this time of a more autobiographical nature than usual. Hood explains on his website that the album grew from a currently abandoned book project, looking back to a darker time in his life and contrasting it with more current happenings. That gives Heat Lightning even more of a storytelling bent than usual for Hood's songs; some are essentially simply spoken word set to music. He's never been too shy about letting fans in on what inspired the songs, but Heat Lightning seems an even more direct window on the characters and situations that populate his work with Drive-By Truckers. Keep 'em coming, Patterson. As is now typical for the band's releases, the vinyl version is is top notch, mastered at Sterling and pressed at Pallas in Germany. (ATO 0162, 2012; includes CD version)
Two Gallants: The Bloom and the Blight
Another September release from ATO, Two Gallants latest surprised me with its ferocity when a promo CD crossed my desk. I'd never heard their music beyond a stray song or two, but for a group typically tagged as folk rock, The Bloom and the Blight has as much in common with the loud-soft dynamics of Nirvana as, say, Bon Iver. (Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be the patterning of acoustic and heavy electric textures used in Ha Ha Tonka's best work.) According to the record's press release, that partial musical break with the past was intentional after a few years off and some personal hard times for the duo.
There are mellow moments, but much of The Bloom and the Blight is given over to melancholy, cathartic hard rock. Despite the dark topical matter, the loud guitars and raggedly shouted vocals somehow combine to give The Bloom and the Blight an anthemic, hopeful feel, which says a lot about the power of music to heal. I finally snagged a copy of the LP version, and it's a very nice sounding disc. One caveat, however: it's pressed at United and this copy -- like many of the plant's discs of the past decade -- has the standard United rolling warp. Also included with the LP is a one-sided 7-inch featuring an appropriate cover of "I'm So Depressed" by blues/folk one-man band Abner Jay. (ATO 0158, 2012; with download card)
A.C. Newman: Shut Down the Streets
In which Mr. Newman's solo work loiters on the bridge to New Pornographers land, courtesy of nearly wall-to-wall backing vocals by Neko Case. Right now some readers may be saying "Yay!" and others "Was there a difference anyway?" I can see why many listeners would find Newman's solo albums somewhat indistinguishable from the Pornographers; his songwriting style is so distinctive it's rightly been the focal point of that group's collaborative albums. His three solo records, though, are all Newman's songs, giving him a chance to shape a unified statement of his own. Since the combo of Newman/Case harmonies is unbeatable, it's a welcome addition to his solo work.
The varying instrumentation and arrangements of Shut Down the Streets amble between the more "indie rock" direction of recent New Pornographers and the power pop hooks of earlier days, never totally settling in either camp. That gives the album a sprawling feel despite its relatively compact length (about 40 minutes), and it's definitely a grower rather than a grabber. After several spins, this one's really starting to sink in. (Matador OLE-992-1, 2012; with download card)