The Fine Print
"But their songs already sound like outtakes" my wife
offered when I told her the new album by Drive-By Truckers, one of the few
bands the both of us hold dear, was a collection of b-sides, outtakes and
covers. I agree; the beauty of a great Drive-By Truckers song runs opposite of
what most groups consider a successful or A-side effort. Their best songs lack
that final coat of polish, have chips on the edges, sound like they might come
apart any second now. Their images are delivered a little soft, like one of those
half-baked pizzas, to finish cooking in your head, revealing their true
content when you bite down to the crust. It sets them apart from other bands, and successful
types don't really try to get set apart anymore.
It's also why, based on the merits of a B-side collection
served up on their way out of a contract, Drive-By Truckers is still one of the
best bands around. Their last record Brighter
Than Creation's Dark surprised a lot of people in that it turned internal,
stayed folksier than they usually do, and proved the band was just as viable after Jason Isbell's departure as songwriter and Shonna Tucker's
ease in stepping up to the plate.
This album has some killer tracks. You are bound to love "George
Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues" on title alone, an open letter to old No-Show
to "leave that cell phone alone" after his 1999 car wreck. "The Great Car
Dealer War" and the boogied-up version of their own "Goode's Field Road" are both spec DBT tales of good ol' boys turning a
little more bad than they are comfortable with, just to keep ahead in this
world. Their take on Tom T. Hall's "Mama
Bake a Pie", the story of a soldier chuckling through the loss of his legs in the war and
drinking through his trip back home is spot -on, just as is their visceral reading
of the late Warren Zevon's meta-Southern diatribe "Play it All Night Long," notable
for its use of the word "jizz" and the chorus:
"Sweet home Alabama"
Play that dead band's song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long
It's not a surprise that a group that came to prominence deconstructing
the Lynyrd Skynyrd myth, as well as the Southern identity, would find a way to
shine in that song that walks the fine line between mocking and living up to
that image. But they really kinda own the thing now in my ears.
Likewise, Tom Petty's "Rebels" should be a no-brainer for
this band, and they embody it as their own. Thing is, I went back and listened
to the original, a product of that awkward period when Petty was consorting
with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, and the DBT version sounds like the "real"
version of that song, the earnest one that bar bands for years have been
lulling people "too drunk to follow" to the dance floor with for years with a good drunk story only to sucker punch them with the Civil War in the last verse.
"Mrs. Klaus' Kimono" is a dirty Christmas song, the ultimate
B-side, and yet might just be the soul of the record. Patterson Hood puts his devil mask on "a sinister elf with a
sinister plan" who is out to exact the sweetest revenge of the oppressed: getting
some off the boss' old lady. The band has gone down that road in song before,
but somehow in satire there is a little renewed spring in their step. Maybe
they can convince Dylan to do this one on that Christmas album of his.
Speaking of Dylan, I had this album on in the background the
first time I spun it and the final number seemed awfully familiar despite it
being so obviously one of their songs. It took me singing unconsciously along
with "and you don't talk to loud" for me to recognize it as Dylan's
touchstone "Like a Rolling Stone." Greil Marcus wrote a whole book about this
song, using it as a means to document the times in which it was released. Drive-By
Truckers use it to paint out a family portrait, each of them taking a verse
over that never-ending melody.
This is the one song here where Mile Cooley's vocal presence really
shines, hitting this song like a John Fogerty's silver hammer but truthfully,
the song and the album belongs to Hood. It forms a stylistic and contextual framework in which he sounds at home,
a compendium of context and conquest, of persistence and resistance, of loose
ends tied-up into a sling and swung against the giants. They take the spirit of Southern rock and whatever it means to you and carve it out like a big pumpkin and invite you to come live in it a while with them. So what if they can't win
against the major leaguers that do everything right and have normalcy and a
well-devised-and-followed-through plan on their side? I'd rather kick it on the
sidelines with the greatest band in rock 'n' roll cool enough to still be