With nearly 25 years to its name, Widespread Panic has had plenty of opportunities to tweak its studio approach. The band has entered the soundproof walls with a set of road-tested songs still smelling of the tour bus, convened with a blank slate intent on writing the album on the fly, and sampled various producers in various locations seeking that perfect mix.
The wide range of studio experiences has fed a growing versatility, but has yet to deliver the perfect representation of this workhorse of Southern rock and roll.
For its eleventh studio release, Widespread Panic returned to its hometown of Athens, Georgia, and, with producer John Keane at the helm for the first time since 2003’s Ball, has recorded an album that is on par with its strongest. Dirty Side Down finds the sextet with a host of new and used songs; some that have been played live, others that are fresh and untouched, and most that emanate a feeling of renewal and, at times, even comfort. The opening “Saint Ex” is perhaps the most exciting of the new tracks, featuring an air-tight, multi-segmented structure in which the band’s dark soul emerges. Several tracks fair just as well, most notably the simmering title track, the tenderly acoustic “This Cruel Thing,” and the anthemic instrumental “St.Louis."
But for all of Dirty Side Down’s successes, the band continues to be plagued by the symptoms of many of its peers who excel in the live setting, but find the studio an unforgiving place to communicate the strengths they’ve honed on the stage. The long-played but never released cover of Jerry Joseph’s “North” joins a handful of compositions that feel confined and lifeless, including “Jaded Tourist” and “When Cotton Was King.” All three boast huge potential in the live context (where “North” has proven its stature again and again), but here, feel like looming bodies with brittle bones, ready to walk but unable to run.
To put it plainly, Widespread Panic’s albums may never capture the live energy that nourishes its ever-growing fanbase from show to show and from tour to tour. But Dirty Side Down is closer than most, and leaving the fans wanting more isn’t really a bad thing … is it?
Dirty Side Down is out now on ATO Records.