Neo-Southern-rock stalwarts Drive-By Truckers have finally reached the hazy place where their ancestors Jason & The Scorchers and Drivin' N' Cryin' once landed, and they now seem to be struggling with how beholden they want to be to a tradition of heavy stomp and deep twang. The title of their new album, A Blessing And A Curse, could almost be a reference to their sound, which they've honed into a tight, thick stylistic prison. And though A Blessing And A Curse includes some furtive attempts at busting out—like the springy, Wilco-like album-opener "Feb 14," the roaring-but-supple anthem "Easy On Yourself," and the almost Dinosaur-esque pop-grunge charger "Wednesday"—the bulk of the album is made of slight, rote country-rockers, as sturdy and flat as a table.
Even lyrics, usually Drive-By Truckers' strongest point, seem a little forced this time out. After the long instrumental intro of title track, writer-singer Patterson Hood applies his distinctive nasal whine to a set of derivative put-down couplets like "Sucking on what's left of the trust fund / sucking on the end of a shotgun." The lapse is even more noticeable because of A Blessing And A Curse's key songs—the slow, swinging "Goodbye," the mournful, folky "Little Bonnie," and the spoken-word "A World Of Hurt"—which all find Hood pondering death and maturity, leaning on the sounds of the South and on vivid writing that would make Gram Parsons green if he hadn't long since turned blue. But only in the mid-tempo divorce song "Daylight" do Drive-By Truckers really sound fresh, even as they retain the right to serve a searing-hot guitar solo fresh from the deep fryer.