2001's Southern Rock Opera catapulted the Drive-By Truckers from their early status as another alt-country band with a joke name into one of the smartest, edgiest, and most talked-about hard rock bands in America, and since then they seem to have taken the thematic consensus of Southern Rock Opera as a lucky piece -- while 2003's Decoration Day and 2004's The Dirty South weren't concept albums like SRO, their tales of hard living and difficult circumstances in the American South gave them a unified feeling that turned the band's fine songs into an even more cohesive whole. With A Blessing and a Curse, the Truckers take a step back from this approach for the first time since their breakthrough -- most of the album's 11 songs were written in the studio during the recording sessions -- and though the sound and the feel of these tunes is consistent with the band's previous body of work, A Blessing and a Curse sounds like a collection of individual pieces rather than a coherent and organic whole. But the pieces sound great -- Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell remain a triple-threat team as guitarists, songwriters, and singers, and the tough, funky report of Brad Morgan's drums and Shonna Tucker's bass drives this music with both groove and force. The hard-earned wisdom about matters of the heart related on "Space City," "A World of Hurt," and "Feb. 14" cuts deep down to the bone, as does the day-to-day emotional chaos of "Aftermath U.S.A." and the title cut. the Drive-By Truckers have never sounded better in the studio as they do on "A World of Hurt," Without polishing away their personality, producer David Barbe and mixer John Agnello get the band's three-guitar onslaught on tape with equal shares of muscle and clarity, while the tight interplay between the players suggests the Rolling Stones at their Sticky Fingers/Exile on Main St. peak as much as the DBTs' oft-cited role models Lynyrd Skynyrd. A Blessing and a Curse doesn't try to tell one big story, but 11 small ones that follow a similar trail through 21st century America, and if it isn't as ambitious as the three releases that preceded it, it still confirms that the Drive-By Truckers are still what they were before making this record: the best hard rock band in America today.