The brand new Drive-By Truckers album, English Oceans, is really great. But if you already know the music of the Drive-By Truckers that probably won't be any great shock - or, maybe it still is. Maybe you moved away from their sound in recent years, forgot about them even. It happens. Let English Oceans pull you back in. As I said in my review (link above) it would be churlish to pick any one album from this band and label it their best - but English Oceans is certainly at their best right now.
And though there'll be other albums and there'll also be other reviews that rave - and then some that tell you it doesn't have the edge or spirit of the band's earliest releases - I reckon there's something very special in this new album, it's a consolidation too; the band down to just two songwriters, where previously there had always been a foil, a third writer.
Jason Isbell is off making fantastic music on his own now, last year's Southeastern is a record I've only just recently caught up with - but it's one of the better country/Americana releases I've heard in a while. (Damn shame there's no Wellington show for this guy but he plays Auckland next month). His former wife Shonna Tucker has also walked from the band. She replaced Isbell as the third songwriter in the group and was a crucial presence as bass player too. So now it's just Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, tuning and churning their guitars, lighting up songs, puffing out their vocals. And they're driving this band as good as they ever did - and the songs still light up first pop. English Oceans is brand new but already I can hear - in songs like When Walter Went Crazy and Pauline Hawkins and Shit Shots Count and When He's Gone and Grand Canyon - some of my favourite Drive-By ditties.
My way into the band was through Hood's first solo record, a collection of demo-sketches; I still love that record. I knew who he was, knew he was the son of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, knew that Patterson was the co-leader of this fearsome unit known as Drive-By Truckers.
Working in a music store, as I did at that time, you collected names, filed them for later. Sometimes you needed a reminder to investigate the name you'd stored away. My prompt to start working through the Drive-By catalogue arrived when a sales rep handed me a copy of the Hood album, Killers and Stars. That album sold me. This guy could write. Loved his voice, and the way he told a tale. The songs were so strong.
So then I get to the band, and there's this real sting in their tail too - some references to 1970s Rolling Stones and early 1980s R.E.M. The band is just such a great unit. They fit in with the likes of Uncle Tupelo and the early Wilco and Son Volt. And they're all favourites of mine at this time too. But this group isn't just a country group, and isn't any old rocking band - they go on to play the backing-band role on "comeback" albums by Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Not unlike The Roots in their second-guise role outside of their own albums.
You listen to the Truckers on a good day and they have that perfect tight-but-loose feel, like The Band and Led Zeppelin and The Stones (so long as it's not a bad day for them). You listen to the Truckers and you hear words and themes and tales that might have come from the pages of Flannery O'Connor, you hear an economy in the telling of the tale that was paramount in those Raymond Carver stories. This is like Glory Days (and "glory days") Bruce Springsteen but with something to (actually) say.
I've still got material from the band's back-catalogue to get to - I haven't collected up all of their albums, but in the meantime Ugly Buildings, Whores, and Politicians, a "Greatest Hits" compilation covering off the best of their 1998-2011 years, is filling in a few gaps, satiating - but also reminding me to head back for the albums I haven't yet heard. Who knows what their best albums is - could be the time they told the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the double-disc concept album, Southern Rock Opera (I hope you're reading, Maggie!). It could be Alabama Ass Whuppin' or Pizza Deliverance - the two albums recorded before Southern Rock Opera, a breakthrough of sorts for the band. Or it could be 2004's The Dirty South - that was my introduction to the group (so certainly a sentimental favourite). I heard Hood's solo ideas and then went straight for this one. A gem. But, hey, there's another half-dozen before and after - 2011's Go-Go Boots was good too, but English Oceans is better. It's my pick, for now, as the band's best set of songs; the writing is superb. Of course the playing and singing is top-notch too. But it's the songs, the way they create these sequels to old Neil Young tunes, they way they create little road-movies within their words and worlds.
Isn't it great when a band's new album is so much more than just a contractual obligation, or hopeful tag-along, it's among the band's best work - a perfect introduction for new listeners, a rival for the best work from a group that's never made a mistake, never released a dud. Always had a lot of time for Drive-By Truckers anytime over the last decade. But right now they're running close to my favourite band around. Now, how about a New Zealand tour? Please?
Any Drive-By Truckers fans out there? What's your favourite record from this crew? And have you heard English Oceans? I thoroughly recommend it. (Here's my review).
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