Keep On Truckin’
Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans
The Drive-By Truckers continue to be one of the best and most consistent American bands on their tenth studio album, English Oceans. Far from uplifting, their songs are generally character sketches about the grittiest, saddest, most downtrodden and down-on-their-luck the American South has to offer. And there is no band that does it better.
The first album since the departure of bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker, the Truckers are once again down to two songwriters. In the past, the songwriting has been dominated by Patterson Hood, who generally delivers the more desperate, depressed, and emotionally raw songs, while the gaps are filled in with Mike Cooley’s more upbeat, often cartoonish character summaries. This time out, however, they split the songwriting duties straight down the middle and, really, Cooley is the star of the show here. His opening salvo, “Shit Shots Count”, is the kind of Stonsey number that he excels at, taken one step closer with a horn section that sounds straight out of Exile On Main Street. One of Cooley’s great talents is his voice. Always a deep Southern drawl, he can holler with the best of them on the rockier numbers and then sound like a grizzled old cowboy on the slower songs, such as the stark “Primer Coat” and the exquisite semi-title-track, “Made Up English Oceans”, perhaps the closest he’s come to capturing a typical “Athens” sound, with a lyric that is written from the point of view of Lee Atwater. “Hearing Jimmy Loud” is a bar-room stomp about a bar-room stomp and is another scorcher while “Natural Light” is a good old-timey country swing with some great piano playing from Jay Gonzalez and a groove that makes me think that Willie Nelson could totally OWN this song. The same could also be true of “First Air Of Autumn”, a mellow, fast paced shuffle that once again shows Cooley to be one of the greatest country crooners out there. To me, Mike Cooley has always been kind of like the George Harrison to Patterson Hood’s Lennon and McCartney (and even less that that when Jason Isbell was in the band). His songs only showed up now and then but, when they did, they always delivered 100%. This album proves that he can match Patterson song-for-song and still steal the show.
English Oceans also marks a first as Cooley assumes the lead vocal role for a song that Hood wrote, the excellent “Til He’s Dead Or Rises”. This was done out of necessity, as Hood was struggling to get a good vocal take in the studio so Cooley simply gave it a shot and it somehow worked. Given how both writers generally reach the same conclusions from such wildly different directions, it is very interesting to hear this song from the perspective of Mike Cooley. In a way, it doesn’t seem right. But it still works.
As far as Patterson Hood goes, his songs are just as strong as ever. While Cooley has a few different distinct musical wells that he tends to draw from, Patterson has a very distinct style of writing that is hard to miss and even harder to match. “When He’s Gone” has that sort of 70s Neil Young slam that so many of his songs have and a lyric about a sad, neglected, unhappy wife which is about 68% of all Patterson Hood songs. But that doesn’t stop this from being a phenomenal song, quite possibly the quintessential Patterson Hood song. “Pauline Hawkins” is a big barnstormer while “The Part Of Him” is a scathing and I mean scathing attack on what he calls “political assholery”. It is not about anyone in particular, no matter how personal the lyric comes across, because it really could be about anyone. They’re all guilty, right?
“When Walter Went Crazy” is another classic Patterson Hood song, right down to the title, and is about that guy you always hear about on the news, the one that just snaps one day and burns down his house with his family in it. Horribly depressing subject matter that really only works coming from Patterson Hood. He just has that knack for delivering the worst news, in a way that makes you feel totally uncomfortable, and not only can you not look away but you are immediately compelled to come back for more.
Closing out the album on a somber note how else is the epic “Grand Canyon” which was written about Craig Lieske, a seminal figure in the Athens music scene and a key character in the Truckers’ touring support, who passed away suddenly last year. A dark, emotional number not unlike some of Neil Young’s material, say around the time of Tonight’s The Night, this just further proves the power of this band. While just shy of eight minutes on record, this track is already surpassing fifteen minutes on stage, as the band lets loose all its demons for the world to hear.
Despite an ever-shifting lineup (Hood & Cooley are the only constants), the Drive-By Truckers are one of those bands that doesn’t quite grow or change all that much, musically. Sure, they evolve, as bands do, and they continue to mature as songwriters, but they aren’t one of those bands that ever ventures beyond its comfort zone. They will never record an album in Berlin or hire Dangermouse to produce them. They will never do a synth record, full of drum machines, or bring in a guest to rap or put out an EP of remixes. Hell, they’ll never sing a happy song. It’s just not what they do. What that means is that a Truckers record is a Truckers record and it really all comes down to the songwriting and the natural timbre of the performance. While some of their records have been better than others, they have never done a bad album and I don’t think they ever will. They are just one of those truly reliable bands and English Oceans finds them continuing to be at the top of their game.
Written by: Chris Anderson