Patterson Hood is one of those songwriters for whom the pen moves faster than the mind. He writes, records, writes, records… like a Jack Kerouac or a Neil Young or a Stephen King, he pours himself out on the page and doesn’t linger much over the result. It’s like a reflex, an unconscious response: just write, sing it out, move on to the next idea. If the rhymes are thin, or the story a bit under-baked, just move along, friend, because when one of these things hits, it’s pure, raw, untouchable perfection. At least, this is how I understand his method, and this is why I forgive him his frequent misses. Because if Patterson Hood nails it (“The Living Bubba”, “Angels and Fuselage”, “Sink Hole”, “The Home Front”, “Lookout Mountain”, “Let There Be Rock”, “My Sweet Annette”), the result is something very special.
Recorded back in early 2005, Hood’s second solo record (or side project, as the Drive-By Truckers frontman prefers to call it) resonates with shimmery gloom and his trademark wit. But, just exactly why this stuff was recorded as “Patterson Hood” material and not as part of another (virtually perennial and almost always excellent) Drive-By Truckers record isn’t eminently clear. Hood is one of the two principal voices in that top-shelf band, and has never appeared to be much restrained by his mates. His are always the lion’s share of songwriting credits on their albums, and his voice is probably the one most readily associated with the group. Plus, the Truckers have never seemed anything but the perfect interpreters of his gravel-voiced, hard-luck evocations of American life. What, in other words, does leaving Mike Cooley, Shonna Tucker, John Neff and Brad Morgan at home mean for the sound of Hood’s sound?
The answer is, predictably (and OK, it’s true, this is a lazy reviewer’s thing to say, but stick around, because it makes sense), both nothing and everything. Musically, Murdering Oscar is no different in terms of approach than anything we have come to expect from Patterson Hood: grinding three-or-four chord garage rock, drive-heavy reverb, throaty storytelling, a hefty dose of gallows humour, and a few slow-burning excursions into some poor schlub’s bleak night. Most of the instruments on this “side-project” are played by sometime Truckers sidemen David Barbe, Will Johnson, and Scott Danboum (though, Hood’s dear old dad, longtime Muscle Shoals musician David Hood is also on board), so the overall aesthetic isn’t exactly reinvented. None of the songs here would be out of place on either of the last two Truckers albums (indeed, if only the best of these had been included on 2006’s underwhelming Blessing and a Curse, that little misstep might have been a masterpiece). And all of them would have been improved by a screaming lead here and there from Cooley, a thumping bassline from Tucker. This record is, finally, too much a Truckers album to allow us not to miss them. The sound, then, remains the same, but just a little less the same.
But, let’s not get too lost here. This is, all on its own, a great record. It explores variations on Hood’s favourite subject—the lonely, forgotten everyman (himself included) wandering through a twisted, complex, underappreciated, over-mythologized American South. Don’t let the Derek and the Dominoes allusion throw you: this isn’t any collection of love songs. Nor is it a collection of murder ballads, the vengeful title track excepted (“I don’t need nobody to save save save me/ I killed Oscar, and I forgave me”). Rather, it’s a ramble through a series of Hood’s favourite topics (suicide, love, politics, loneliness, fools, sex), all of them shiny in the darkness. If you’ve never heard the Truckers before, start elsewhere; everyone else: enjoy.