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Album Review: Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance by Patterson Hood
Excellent, Based on 7 Critics
Rolling Stone - 100 Based on rating 5/5
Frankly, it's a relief to hear Patterson Hood backed by banjo, fiddle and acoustic strumming; the Drive-By Truckers frontman has hollered Southern Gothic tales over an electric-guitar army with such intensity for so many years, it's a miracle he hasn't flamed out. This third solo set was born of a shelved novel/song-cycle project. The hush magnifies its stories of family and fucked-up youth, and even the sketches deliver an emotional gut punch.
The first rule of making a solo album is there's no point in bothering unless you're trying to do something you couldn't do within the context of your band, and Patterson Hood clearly understands this. The tenor of Hood's lyrical voice is strong enough that there's a clear link between his music with the Drive-By Truckers and his solo material, but his first two albums, 2004's Killers and Stars and 2009's Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), found him exploring themes that were too quirky, intimate, or idiosyncratic to fit comfortably within the big, muscular sound of the DBTs. The paradox of his third solo effort, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, is that it sounds and feels the least like an album by the Truckers, but comes closest to capturing the deep emotional resonance of their finest work.
Drive-By Trucker lifts the lid on his crisis years…Seems like Patterson Hood’s been dusting down a lot of old memories of late. His last solo LP, 2009’s Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), saw the Drive-By Truckers leader revisit a turbulent period in his life from the mid ‘90s. Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance peels the clock back a little further to around 1991, when the then 27-year-old had just left his Alabama hometown for Memphis in the wake of a messy divorce and the break-up of his pre-Truckers band, Adam’s House Cat.
As this album’s evocative title implies, Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood is a natural storyteller. More than his plainspoken red clay voice or the tough, soulful Southern rock his band specializes in, it’s his lyrics, predominantly about the Southern experience, that create mini-movies of the mind. That comes to full fruition on “Untold Pretties,” where Hood speaks the story—a memoir about a high school sweetheart, his grandfather’s funeral and other introspective matters—over a sparse, piano based, pedal steel enhanced mid-tempo backing.
The most frontward of frontpersons for the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood is also the one most easily taken for granted. The gracious, heart-sleeved ringmaster of the band’s live performances, Hood trades in sincerity and emotional showmanship while his bandmates cultivate hipper niche fanbases. Longtime partner Mike Cooley gets to be the rogue, racking up points over on the right side of the stage (dubbed “Cooleyville” by fans) with devil-may-care attitude and darkly comic puns.
Even when he's exhausted, Patterson Hood can't relax. Between tours and album cycles for the last two Drive-By Truckers records, 2010's The Big To-Do and 2011's Go-Go Boots, Hood decided to spend his down time writing a novel. Conceived while he was on the road for To-Do, the book was supposed to be a semi-autobiographical novel about a deeply troubled period in his life back in the early 90s.
Patterson Hood's third solo album shares obvious similarities to what he brings to the Drive-By Truckers, but Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance delves deeply into personal and emotional territory in ways his Georgian marauders could never approach. Immediate about this collection is its intimacy, Hood having lovingly built his own Harvest, songs emanating a golden sheen filled with tumbling pianos and cellos. Ostensibly a contrast between the tumultuous life he was leading 20 years ago and a certain amount of contentment he's finally achieved, it's all told in a way that's both musically satisfying and lyrically potent.