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Patterson Hood, Killers and Stars (New West)
by: Steve Horowitz

The Drive-By Truckers have become well-known alternative-country rock stars in the 21st century thanks to two killer albums: Southern Rock Opera (2001) and Decoration Day (2003), both of which made many prestigious best records of the year awards in publications like the Village Voice and Billboard. But times were tough for DBT before Southern Rock Opera, the band's fourth album, broke nationally. Lead singer songwriter Patterson Hood (DBT actually have three lead singer songwriters) was having a particularly tough time during the recording of Southern Rock Opera. Hood's wife had divorced him, and the members of DBT were at odds with each other over the direction of the band. Hood recorded a dozen acoustic demos that exposed his gloomier thoughts and sold copies of the disc, which he named Killers and Stars, at his solo shows. Now that the Truckers have achieved greater success-although sadly the band is still not as widely known as it should be-New West has re-mastered and released the disc to the general public.

The songs on Killers and Stars indirectly reveal the extent of Hood's despondency. The tunes are not directly autobiographical but have a raw, unpolished edge that indicates the composer's inability to concentrate and fully develop the material. Several songs start out with an intriguing concept, only to fizzle out as Hood doesn't know where to go. For example, there's "The Assassin," which concerns a hit man who is no longer able to kill without feeling now that he has murdered the woman who taught him his trade. Or "Rising Son," which concerns a father and son at odds over the child's wild ways. This is the stuff of B-movie drama and Hood is not able to rise above the melodramatic triteness of the stories.

Fortunately, Hood's passionate delivery and literary talents make the other songs well worth hearing. There's the raving of "Belinda Carlisle Diet," in which Hood rants "Cocaine and milkshakes/milkshakes cocaine" as a way of exorcising the MTV rock star's demons and describing the shallowness of her pain. Or the compressed family narrative "Old Timer's Disease" that begins "In '42 my granddad was drafted by the army/they sent him off to fight in Germany/Left my grandma at home with a brand new baby boy/and my mom was born the day they bombed Hiroshima/Not long after that, my grandpa got to meet her." Hood touchingly conveys his grandfather's story before he lost his mind to Alzheimer's.

Hood's gritty vocals can imbue a line like "All my waterlogged shit is laying in the yard" with deep emotion. In this case, it conveys the stoicism and angst of someone whose house has burned down and has nothing left, but who still refuses to back down from life's adversities. Hood praises the former film star "Francis Farmer" and sneers at the persona of sensitive songstress "Cat Power," without over or under stating their talents. Farmer, whose visage graces the cover, is best known for her tragic life. Hood focuses on what she endured more than what she accomplished. In Power's case, Hood pokes fun at the moody singer's fear of public performance and how that has added to her mystique, but he does acknowledge the perils and pressures of fame and is not unsympathetic. The rest of the tunes, including a cover of Tom T. Hall's sad paean to an alcoholic "Pay no Attention to Alice," are also first rate and bear repeated listening.