DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS A Blessing And A Curse (New West)
Before my first proper listen to Drive-By Truckers I presumed they played a kind of affectionate but gently parodic homage to the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band. Well, that left me ill-prepared for the might and muscle of A Blessing And A Curse. Imagine a fusion of Tom Petty, the Stones at their greatest rock n roll band in the world peak and lyrics as heartfelt as any on a Richmond Fontaine or American Music Club album, and here we all are.
In its first half the album ranges from the post-party apocalypse of Aftermath USA, through the regret-soaked Goodbye to the delicious, feral howl of Daylight. Enjoyable as those undoubtedly are, though, its the five song second side (well, what Im guessing would be the second side in old money) that cements its greatness. Wednesday ably demonstrates the potency of sadness and metaphor and the value of an unstoppable beat and a killer chorus. Little Bonnie renders an infants death with painful perspective and poignancy, before Space City shows similar empathy with an adult bereavement. Almost certainly erroneously, I read some covert Kurt Cobain references into the albums last two tracks: the title tune, a work of astounding, rippling power and vaguely biblical threat, carries the lines Is this how youre gonna write your story? / Down in your time as a high-flying flame out / Sucking on whats left of your trust fund? / Sucking on the end of a shot gun Were all so in love with the artifice / We dont dare look too close. A World Of Hurt is a mournful, lonesome wail of a song, though not without the promise of redemption: consider the line I was 27 when I figured out that blowing my brains out wasnt the answer in the light of the fact that Cobain was 27 when he did just that. Maybe not as much of a fizzy Technicolor affirmation as The Flaming Lips Do You Realize??, its perhaps all the more believable for being grounded in dusty realism.
A Blessing And A Curse definitely more of the former than the latter - is an album that grapples with some pretty serious ghosts, almost always successfully, its punchy Americana rarely less than a delight.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West)
With their alt.country tales of misfits and irresponsible behaviour, Drive-By Truckers occupy a similar niche to Richmond Fontaine or pre-weirdness Wilco. Where the Fontaine can be a little dry and dusty at times, the Truckers lean towards the sleek, polished and muscular. Not that one is necessarily superior to the other, of course; in fact, it’s encouraging to observe how the church of Americana is broad enough to accommodate two such approaches without any toes getting stepped on.
It’s certainly difficult to imagine Richmond Fontaine participating in the swaggering Faces fuzz of “3 Dimes Down”, for example. It might sound sloppy, but it’s as intricately layered as a whiskey-soaked Steely Dan, underlined by the talent on display here: guitarist/singer/songwriter Patterson Hood is the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood, whose organist Spooner Oldham also plays on the album.
The band’s trio of songwriters specialise in naggingly ambiguous short stories, sort of like a Southern-fried Raymond Carver. “Three Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” and “Goode’s Field Road” delicately, almost forensically, examine the human cost behind sensational local newspaper headlines; “The Righteous Path”, “Daddy Needs A Drink”, “I’m Sorry Huston”, “You And Your Crystal Meth” and “Bob” are equally incisive, quietly chilling character studies. “Self Destructive Zones” tips its hat to grunge’s generation landslide; “The Opening Act” recounts a desolate mix of sex, drugs, denial and country rock. “That Man I Shot” finds the band grappling with subjects as serious as can be, as American foreign policy and post-traumatic stress disorder collide in an incident played out in an unnamed country. If the specifics have been omitted, the emotional heft is undimmed. It’s the album’s most furious six minutes, where all the repressed disgust spills over in molten, slashing guitar lines. “Checkout Time In Vegas” is almost a modern day Gram Parsons morality tale; it sounds as though it was crafted that way on purpose. “The Monument Valley” is a measured and majestic tribute to John Ford (the booklet carries the dedication “For The Great Director”) that could equally serve as the band’s own modus operandi, especially the lines “Tell them just enough to still leave them some mystery/A grasp of the ironic nature of history”.
Elsewhere in the booklet we learn that the album was “recorded on glorious 2” analog tape”, and the back cover dices the tracklisting up into four sides, just like a double album. The CD sounds pretty warm and punchy: some time after I bought it the album was released on vinyl as well. With its 19 tracks and 75 minutes speed by with no obvious filler, if there’s a better album released during 2008 I’ll eat my metaphorical hat.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS The Big To-Do (PIAS Recordings/ATO)
Oh, but this one, Drive-By Truckers’ eighth studio album, takes a while. At first it seems like the band, who at their considerable best sound like a rougher, noisier Richmond Fontaine, have traded in subtlety for garage rock immediacy. These songs seem too deliberately empirical, their sledgehammer attack flattening all nuances. As if a deliberate riposte to those who bafflingly suggested that recent albums such as “A Blessing And A Curse” were deficient in some way for not bringing the rock, “The Big To-Do” initially seems to flounder beneath the acrid, distorted smokescreen of overcompensation. It’s no help, either, that the production seems to be modelled after the eerbleeding AM noise that made the last two Springsteen albums so painful to listen to, nor that the band’s noble efforts to render the vinyl version a thing of sonic wonder – employing noted engineer Stan Ricker to half-speed master the album from the analogue master tape – were sunk by a pressing that’s three-quarters sabotaged by rasping distortion.
On becoming accustomed to the album’s sludgy, murky sound, though, it’s apparent that there are many great songs lurking here, waiting to be teased out. The self-explanatory self-destruction of “The Fourth Night Of My Drinking” is nothing new in the Truckers’ canon, but rarely have they balanced doom and foreboding with humour so well before. “Birthday Boy” brilliantly wraps up poverty, the sex industry and relationship anxiety, and the opaque reconstructed narrative of “Drag The Lake Charlie” describes a spree gone horribly, non-specifically wrong. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” and “The Flying Wallendas” are expertly ripped from different kinds of real life: the former describes a preacher’s wife driven to kill her abusive husband, her charge reduced to voluntary manslaughter “When the defense pulled out and displayed/Them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear”, the latter a fatal accident that befell a highwire circus troupe during a 1962 performance at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum. “This Fucking Job” is a fairly straightforward rant against an economy gone bad and an American dream soured, “You Got Another” a slow, magisterial, gently glowering tale of ache and heartbreak that’s almost an alt.country “With Or Without You”. Vinyl-only bonus track “Girls Who Smoke” amusingly compiles the band’s impressions of the muddy, freezing British festival season, and “After The Scene Dies” darkly chronicles just that, when there’s no more clubs and the last gangs’ left town. Perhaps the album’s greatest shock is closer “Eyes Like Glue”, a tender parental ballad that seems like a refugee from one of D-BTs quieter albums that don’t bring quite so much rock.
All this real life and real emotion makes, for example, The Hold Steady’s little world of partying in perpetuity seem kinda frivolous. “The Big To-Do” is an album that bulges at the seams with commitment and range, and even if it’s not one of this band’s best, it’s certainly one of 2010’s finest.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Academy 2, Manchester 12 November 2010
Rooting through the Drive-By Truckers back catalogue in preparation for this gig has turned out to be one of the unexpected musical pleasures of 2010 for me. I’d hardly imagined that they were in possession of such a rich seam of Southern-tilted Americana, and whilst I was familiar with the excellence of more recent works such as “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” and “A Blessing And A Curse”, it was the density and heft, commitment and social comment of “Southern Rock Opera” (the Skynyrd story recast as a double album), “The Dirty South” and “Decoration Day” that really ensnared me. These are records that give the listener something substantial to chew on, sustenance for the desert island.
As for the Drive-By Truckers concert experience, well, I wasn’t disappointed, exactly. They’re good, but they’re also surprisingly faithful to the recordings. With some bands (The Blue Nile inevitably, Richmond Fontaine perhaps) I’d intend that as a compliment, but somehow it doesn’t seem to square with the Truckers’ swaggering, tight/loose rawk aesthetic. Conversely, and confusingly, the one time they deviated from the predetermined path, grinding “Buttholeville” inexorably onwards, seemingly long past the duration of the studio version, I find myself longing for the concision and restraint shown during the rest of the show. That is, however, until I realise that Patterson Hood has turned the song into a blankly insistent interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, and as he fixates on the line “Please don’t stop me” I really hope he doesn’t.
It seems downright perverse that the highlight of a near-two hour Drive-By Truckers show should turn out to be a cover, but weirdly enough, there it is. They played many fine songs – lots from this year’s “The Big To-Do”, canonical classics such as “Marry Me”, “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”, “Zip City” and “Let There Be Rock”, a couple of new ones including “Used To Be A Cop” and, commemorating the late Vic Chesnutt’s birthday, his “When I Ran Off And Left her” – and yet nothing else seemed to catch fire. Maybe their set lacked dynamics, with loud Southern rock song following loud Southern rock song, and a few of their wondrous ballads, something like “Danko/Manuel” or “You Got Another”, could have added some much-needed variety. That constancy might be perfectly understandable and excusable in a bar setting – and, not to demean their considerable talents but they’d surely be the world’s greatest bar band – but maybe the scale and occasion called for something a bit less relentless.
Nevertheless, nothing I saw or heard tonight would prevent me from wanting to see the Truckers again whenever the opportunity arose; perhaps my expectations would be suitably modified, though.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Gangstabilly (New West)
“Gangstabilly” might be Drive-By Truckers’ debut album, but their signature sound is already present on this 1998 release. Admittedly, their country-rock is tilted more towards the former than the latter here, and the sound, if not the spirit, of banjos, mandolin, pedal steel and “big ole upright bass” would fade from their sonic palette in the years to come. But the tales of everyday emotional, economic and spiritual upheaval in blue collar America are already in place – check the album’s title, for example – like Springsteen with a Southern accent.
Opener “Wife Beater” is kinda straightforward and literal by their later standards, but the third track “The Tough Sell” is exactly the kind of cinematic narrative they’d develop into full-blown concept works like “Southern Rock Opera”. Patterson Hood describes “The Living Bubba” as the best song he’s ever written, a true-life story of Atlanta rocker Gregory Dead Smalley, committed to spending the last year of his life playing as many shows as AIDS would allow him. “Late For Church” dreams of flight from the kind of oppressive religious upbringing where the last to church on a Sunday morning is decried as a sinner in the eyes of the community, but “18 Wheels Of Love” is a joyous celebration of a mother remarrying and becoming reinvigorated by life. “Buttholeville”, in contrast, is straightahead complaint country-rock, sorta if The Stooges played cowpunk. It all makes for an uneven but interesting album that’s far more than a footnote to this fine band’s discography.
Released on vinyl for the first time, this is a pretty exemplary example of the reissuer’s art. It ticks pretty much all the audiophile boxes: it’s pressed on three sides of heavy vinyl rather than two for extra sonic oomph (although not as much as it would have had if spread over four 45rpm sides), mastered by Kevin Gray at Acoustech and pressed at RTI, both of whom have been involved with a great many great records. If it’s not the greatest sounding album in the world, it’s at least sonically honest, and streets ahead of the aural murk of the Truckers’ latest long-player “The Big To-Do”.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS Pizza Deliverance (New West)
Drive-By Truckers’ second album, “Pizza Deliverance”, originally released in 1999, suffers in comparison with the band’s debut. In part an attempt to gather up and document the band’s early songs, which had been jettisoned from “Gangstabilly” after a productive writing spree provided sufficient new material for that album, to be painfully blunt most of what’s attempted here had been done better there. The tales of alcohol-soaked tribulation (“Tales Facing Up”, “Love Like This”) are becoming somewhat repetitive, and the band’s attempts at broad, swiping topical satire (“Zoloft”, “The President’s Penis Is Missing”) seem an ill fit for their country-rock expertise, sounding now like relics from a bygone age. Slightly subtler, “The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town” might well be modelled on Johnny Cash’s “The Night Hank Williams Came To Town”, with punk performance art replacing country and western. Perhaps the album’s highlight is “Margo And Harold”, the kind of misshapen character study that would make their later albums so great.
As with “Gangstabilly”, New West’s reissue is “Pizza Deliverance”’s vinyl debut. It ticks the same theoretical audiophile boxes, spread out over three sides of heavyweight, Kevin Gray-mastered, RTI-pressed vinyl, but seems to have a grainier, rougher sound than its predecessor, perhaps the result of some less-than-flawless handwork on its journey from tape to turntable.