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Dark Night, Rising Son

 

Patterson Hood: Killers and Stars

New West, 2004

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: May 12, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's tempting to compare Patterson Hood's de facto solo debut, Killers and Stars, to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (as the All Music Guide, for one, has done). Both are spare, acoustic one-man recordings by artists known for fronting dynamic rock 'n' roll ensembles. But while Nebraska was a mile marker of significant lyrical growth and a stark musical departure for Springsteen, Killers and Stars is neither of those things. Lyrically, it's rawer than Hood's past two albums with the Southern-rocking Drive-By Truckers, more a heartbreak-fueled detour than an ascension. And in both subject matter and musical approach, it doesn't sound too remarkably dissimilar to certain moments of Hood's work with the Truckers, particularly regret-tinged laments like "Your Daddy Hates Me" (from 2003's Decoration Day).

That's not to say that Killers and Stars isn't a different animal from the Truckers' albums; it most decidedly is. Nor is it to say that Hood's straight-from-the-heart songs aren't just as intriguing -- and as moving -- as his better-known work. The air of melancholy that pervades the album is of a piece with Hood's ragged picking and sparse, strummed arrangements, as befits the disc's origins: The singer recorded it over a couple of nights in 2001, smarting (as the songs make clear) from the dissolution of his marriage and a marked period of strife within his band. Hood has sold copies of Killers and Stars as a "work in progress" during occasional solo performances, and he's wisely opted to keep it as such, its less-than-pristine moments left intact.

One could make a case for Killers and Stars being Hood's "divorce album," although it doesn't carry him fully through the grieving process. There's little mistaking the symbolism of "Phil's Transplant," which renders the title character unrecognizable to his wife and friends, or the message of "Miss Me Gone," in which the narrator tells his new ex that she'll miss him as much as he will her. And there's a certain amount of bitterness to be inferred from "Pay No Attention to Alice." But there's little sense of growth, of moving beyond the painful circumstance, unless you count the snarling "Fire," in which everything smells like "burning shit" and the narrator promises "Gonna burn your playhouse down if it's the last thing I do."

In any case, Killers and Stars has other subjects with which to wrestle, as the title indicates. To fulfill the "Killers" part of the equation, there's "The Assassin" -- although, admittedly, the eponymous killer spends the song lamenting having killed the woman he loved. The "Stars," on the other hand, are mostly luminaries with whom Hood empathizes ("Frances Farmer" and the closing "Cat Power," in which he gently takes famously fragile singer-songwriter Chan Marshall to task, asking her -- and by extension himself -- "If you're really so shy / Why are you standing in the light?"). And then there's "Belinda Carlisle Diet," in which the singer seeks escape via "cocaine and milkshakes."

Despite its title and the overhanging sense of gloom imparted by both its subject matter and acoustic atmosphere, Killers and Stars isn't entirely a downer. Hood's strong storytelling shines through in "Rising Son," "Hobo" and the poignant "Old Timer's Disease," as well as the opening "Uncle Disney," which imagines Walt rising from his cryogenic deep-freeze to kick some ass and take some names. The numbers in which Hood does confront his personal drama head-on may lack the furious, rock 'n' roll grit of his angriest, surest Trucker songs. But even they showcase an engagingly direct songwriter, nurturing his talent through a turbulent emotional period to create a flawed but no less fascinating document of resigned sadness and ragged intelligence.

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