A wash of noise reminiscent of Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine introduces one of the strongest tracks on Dirty Side Down, the latest effort by the jam-band road warriors in Widespread Panic. The track wasn’t written by John Bell and company; it’s a cover of “This Cruel Thing” by the late Vic Chesnutt, complete with delicately plucked guitar and a thoughtful croon that perfectly evokes the longtime Panic collaborator. The rest of the record trades on greater complexity and more varied instrumentation—like the alternately hard-driving and ethereal opener, “Saint Ex,” or the title track, which layers a friendly growl over insistent slide guitar that’s initially content to echo organ riffs, but occasionally launches skyward and into the album’s meatiest hooks.
Some of the best songs in Panic’s catalog are about life on the road, and “Shut Up And Drive” marks another worthy addition, marrying a propulsive, brushed beat to down-home guitars that break for shimmering solos. Then the gears catch and the song lurches back onto the highway. Dirty Side Down is an uneven record at times, but given that the band has been hard-pressed to reproduce the energy of its live performances in the studio, Down’s nimble rhythmic shifts and the playful lead-guitar work of Jimmy Herring provide a zip sorely lacking on the last two releases.