CD: Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" (New West)*** ½

THE eighth album from this protean band completes one of the widest mood swings in recent rock history. After specializing in thematically cohesive albums and a revitalized brand of Southern rock, the Athens, Ga.-based Truckers are now all over the place.

That figures, given the changes in the group's core makeup. Rock-leaning guitarist Jason Isbell has gone solo, founding guitarist and pedal steel player John Neff is back, soul eminence Spooner Oldham plays piano and organ on the new album (in stores Tuesday), and bassist Shonna Tucker contributes her first songs.

The result is a sprawling, 75-minute immersion in the dynamic between Patterson Hood's Neil Young/Tom Petty-influenced folk and rock and Steve Cooley's mix of Rolling Stones, stone country and Band-flavored folk-rock.

It's tied together by the Truckers' customary focus on characters coping "in a world turned cold," pushed to the edge by various forces -- internal compulsions, military orders, financial desperation. It's not just good old boys this time. In "Goode's Field Road," a successful family man carefully plots his own demise.

The CD starts with a dream of heaven and ends in an encounter with John Ford, whose words of wisdom have been clearly heeded by the Truckers: "Tell them just enough to still leave them some mystery/A grasp of the ironic nature of history." That's a wrap.

--Richard Cromelin

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