The evolution of the Drive-By Truckers from a hillbilly punk band of the Pizza Deliverance days to an eloquent, unfiltered voice for the rural South by Brighter Than Creation’s Dark transformed them to rugged poet laureates of modern Dixie. From that point on or maybe a little earlier, the potent one-two songwriting punch of co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley has gradually gained more nuance, never really losing its raw punch of the rough ‘n’ rowdy times of the early years.
English Oceans, out March 4, continues the DBT’s march toward Southern rock perfection, losing no momentum in spite of having not convened in a studio until last year since 2009. Staying in musical shape, both Patterson and Cooley had both issued solo records in 2012 in the middle of the band’s down time: Cooley’s The Fool On Every Corner is a spare, solo live document that serves as his debut record alone, while Hood crafted his third; Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance showed how much further he has grown as a composer and it’s fair to call Heat Lightning a minor masterpiece.
During the lull in DBT activity, a few other events has direct impact on the band itself: at the end of 2011 bassist Shonna Tucker left at the end of ’11 and was eventually replaced by Matt Patton of the Tuscaloosa-based outfit The Dexateens. Pedal steel guitarist John Neff also decamped, and the band carried on without a replacement for him. Completing the current line-up are keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez and longtime drummer Brad Morgan.
All put together, these things didn’t make their first new release since 2011’s Go-Go Boots so much of a departure from, say, The Big To-Do, even though Tucker’s usual two tunes per album and Neff’s soul-soothing pedal steel are no long there. Cooley, who had built up a bigger backlog of tunes than usual, easily takes up Tucker’s slack, and winds up undertaking the lead vocals for a full seven of the thirteen songs and writing six of them. His steady baritone is built for country — the country of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and not Kenny Chesney — and it serves him well when he summons up the spirit of those old legends for “Natural Light” and “First Air of Autumn.” But Cooley also shows off his Stones trashy blues-rock on “Shit Shots Counts,” the strongest opener on a Truckers album in some time, and strains of Credence bubble up on “Hearing Jimmy Loud.”
It isn’t a competition, but Hood keeps his own game elevated in response. “When He’s Gone,” his plaintive account of a woman willingly in an abusive relationship follows “Shit Shots” with an equal ferocity (making this the best two opening tracks in a long time) and the advance single “Pauline Hawkins” gets under your skin more and more with each listen. “When Walter Went Crazy” is one of Hood’s signature Southern murder ballads and he wraps up the whole album with an anthemic, slightly spooky “Grand Canyon,” written as a heartfelt tribute to a fallen friend, musician and DBT employee Craig Lieske.
The middle of the album features a song a piece by Cooley and Hood in what Hood describes as being “about political assholery; there’s someone new playing that role every few months” “Made Up English Oceans” and “The Part of Him” beautifully illustrate both the dichotomy in the musical personalities of the band’s two linchpins who are, actually, much of the same mind.
Which gets to the heart of what makes the Drive-By Truckers one of the best goddamned rock bands operating today that hadn’t moved into oldies act mode. The Drive-By Truckers are a tight, road tested unit led by two masterful, persuasive songwriters who might not have even hit their ceilings yet. Whether English Oceans is the apex or on its way there, it’s another essential entry in a catalog that’s already full of essential entries.
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