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Album Review: Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

Album Review:  Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
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Patterson Hood
Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

Earlier this year, Drive-By Trucker associate / former tour mate Craig Finn took some time off from his day job with The Hold Steady and made one of my favorite albums of the year in Clear Heart Full Eyes. Solo efforts are always a bit of a shaky proposition - usually it means the soloist in question is running on fumes and feels the need to spread his or her creative wings. Sometimes, as is in the case of Mr. Finn and Laura Jane Grace (at the time known as Tom Gabel of Against Me!), it results in a great album that retains what made us love the artist in the first place by subtly tweaking the formula. In other cases like those of, say, the ill-fated KISS solo albums of the late Seventies, you get egotistic messes that have no coherent facets and end, well, with a completely unironic cover of Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Patterson Hood’s always been the most prolific of the Truckers, but he’s also been the one to benefit the most from having a few extra songwriters picking up the slack from his less-than-A material. He’s got the most to gain from a successful solo album, but it could also easily fall apart.

Thankfully, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance not only manages to stay consistent all the way through, it manages to live up to the best of his work in Drive-By Truckers. Indeed, Hood makes sure to stick to what he knows best. Over the course of its twelve tracks, Heat Lightning feels an awful lot like DBT - there’s stories of alcoholism, infidelity, loss, and even a spoken song that raises the ghost of “The Three Great Alabama Icons” from the band’s defining album Southern Rock Opera. Also like SRO, Heat Lightning features a loose narrative. Hood reportedly spent a good amount of time in the past few years writing a novel about a particularly dark time in his life, but it seemingly fell apart. Rather than scrap the whole ordeal, Hood turned what was written into his third solo album. That fact seeps through the songs in spades. The whole album feels like the story of a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque version of Patterson....or so I hope. The character portrayed here is not necessarily a respectable one, as seen in the opening strains of “12:01”. Tracks like this are the reason I love the man - he’s able to show, not tell, the story of raging alcoholics crossing county lines to buy booze as soon as the law allows. That uncanny storytelling ability extends across the entire album, filling the listener with a picture of a man dealing with the stresses on a family that arise from going on tour. Hood doesn’t paint a very sympathetic of the narrator in the album, and it somehow manages to evoke a sense of authenticity that doesn’t come through in much music anymore.

Patterson Hood’s previous albums have, in turn, felt like either lo-fi demos or a series of songs that couldn’t find a proper fit in any of DBT’s studio albums. With Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Hood and his backing band have created an album with a unified vision that could not possibly have been made by Drive-By Truckers. It’s a noticeably more laid back and warmer musically, eschewing the stadium-ready crunch of tracks like “Ronnie and Neil” for a sound that feels like a group of grizzled Southerners jamming on a porch well past any reasonable hour. The most notable additions to Hood’s sound here are the focus on piano and violin. There’s little flash to either of these additions, rather, they both feel like organic progressions of the sound, whether it’s the violin sweetening the melancholy in “Disappear” or the majestic rumble of the title track. They knead the sound into the perfect compliment for the lyrics, mimicking the forlorn sigh or the gloom over the course of the running time.

It’s pretty impressive to see that Patterson Hood’s not only been able to make a solo album that’s pretty damned different from his work in Drive-By Truckers, but to make one that’s a fully realized album on it’s own right. As a fan of DBT, I’d be more than placated with a series of outtakes, but he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty with the release of Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. It’s as assured of an album as I’ve heard in ages, done with the humility of a man that’s not afraid to show his woes, worries, and the shittier parts of his personality. If it’s possible to not be swayed by the heartbreak in songs like “Better Off Without”, “Leaving Time” and especially “(untold pretties)”, I don’t want to be informed of it. Heat Lightning is one of the best albums of the year, feeling as familiar as a broken-in boot yet as fresh as a newly-bloomed flower.

Grade: A

Track Listing

1. 12:01
2. Leaving Time
3. Disappear
4. Better Off Without
5. (untold pretties)
6. After the Damage
7. Better than the Truth
8. Betty Ford
9. Depression Era
10. Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
11. Come Back Little Star
12. Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again)
Submitted by Jeremy

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