Saturday, September 29, 2012

"The ghosts are a comfort to me"

You have to wonder if, when Patterson Hood scheduled the release of his new album "Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance" for September 11, he had any idea that two powerhouses were set to be released on the same day - Bob Dylan's "Tempest," which has had more written about it than any album in years, and "The Carpenter," the latest Rick Rubin-produced effort from rising stars The Avett Brothers.

What I know for certain is that when I visited Dimple Records to buy all three albums, two of them were very easy to find.  And I was lucky to find the last available copy of Patterson's new album, tucked into the middle of his very small section back in a remote corner of the store.

So it's not likely that "Heat Lightning" is going to make Patterson Hood a big star, or a household name, or anything remotely like that.  But after a couple of weeks of listening, it's possible that his album just might be the best of the three.  I say "just might" because Dylan's latest is clearly an epic effort, and it's more a matter of deciding how good it is - is it great, or is it the latest masterpiece in a career chock full of them? 

"Heat Lightning" is a modest album - musically, Hood is not trying anything that he hasn't tried before.  But perhaps because the album is, as he writes in the liner notes, the soundtrack for memories of his family, in particular his beloved Great Uncle George A. Johnson (whom Hood immortalized in one of his best songs, "Sands of Iwo Jima"), he has an emotional connection with these songs that lends even the most simple ones a level of depth and a level of commitment that surpasses even his best work with Drive-By Truckers.

The title track is the emotional centerpiece of the album, recounting a visit to the house where Mr. Johnson lived for so many years (he was 91 when he died) and the flood of memories that hit Hood as a result:

Holding on alone to the place you always held
As heat lightning rumbles in the distance
The night creeps slowly by as  hold myself together
Somewhere between anguish and acceptance

But that is hardly the only great song on the album - on "Disappear," on "Better than the Truth," on "Leaving Time" and others, Hood achieves a level of clarity in singing and details that he has rarely matched before.  Nothing loud, and mostly very simple, but enormously powerful and affecting.

Hood's work for what may be the best working band in America has left no doubt that he is one of the great songwriters of this era.  But what he achieves on "Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance" may be more impressive than that.  If you can find a copy of the new album, and of course there is always the Internet to help with that, you should snap it up.

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