Widespread Panic have struggled for a long time to bring the excitement of their live shows onto a studio recording. On their earliest records -- Space Wrangler, their self-titled sophomore album, and Ain't Life Grand -- the band didn't worry about it and the albums were mostly solid and engaging. As WP's live reputation began to spread through the jam band scene, however, that began to change; live records began appearing in streams. In the interim, WP seemingly forgot how to record in a studio. On 2006's Earth to America, WP began addressing the issue with some success. When Jimmy Herring joined for 2008's Free Somehow, they were still struggling with it, but formal song structures were beginning to replace framework riffs for long instrumental jams. On Dirty Side Down, WP finally learned that it is possible to have two distinct personas: one in the studio and another in concert. The concentration on songwriting here is evident from the first moments of the opening track, "Saint Ex." Complex melodic structures, dynamics, classic rock textures, and harmonic balance are exemplified as acoustic and electric instruments interweave seamlessly in a dreamy intro before a Latin percussion groove-laden vibe takes hold thanks to the hand drumming of Domingo S. Ortiz and bassist Dave Schools. Drifting, laid-back vocals are juxtaposed against hard rock guitars from singer John Bell and Herring along with Todd Nance's drum interludes. This is underscored on the driving, percussive blues-rocker "North," with blazing guitars, John Hermann's B-3, and Ortiz's congas. The title track is a knotty yet breezy Americana-styled rocker, while the ballad "This Cruel Thing," with a militaristic snare, Bell's moaning vocal, and an emotive refrain backed by Anne Richmond Boston, is a genuine surprise. "Shut Up and Drive" finds the tightrope between shuffling rocker and guitar jam, holds it tautly, and walks it without faltering. "Clinic Cynic," with Hermann's trademark piano work and producer John Keane's pedal steel, is a straight-up yet laid-back country-rocker. "Jaded Tourist" is a Southern rocker in the grand tradition without giving in to obvious tropes; it also brings gritty funk and soul to the party. The interplay between Hermann and the guitars locks the groove. At an hour long -- which may not bother Spread Heads -- Dirty Side Down is a tad long, but when the songs are this good, WP gets a pass. This is easily the band's finest studio offering in over a decade.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek