I’ve been listening to the Drive-By Truckers for maybe six years now, and they are one of my favorite bands of the last decade. I’ll admit my point of entry was some of the softer, slower stuff including “Tornadoes”, “Danko/Manuel” and the untouchable “Outfit”. But I quickly came around to appreciating the seriously big southern rock anthems and guitar work on their trio of masterpieces The Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South. Over the last half-dozen years, I’ve attended probably as many live DBT shows where I consumed copious amounts of whiskey and unironically made devil horns and used phrases like “they will rock your face off”.
(I also need to applaud a band who can correctly use a hyphen.)
The focus of DBT’s work has always been “the duality of the Southern thing”. Their albums explicitly explore the conflict between pride and shame inherent in being a thinking person from the South. Their first three albums did this with a sense of humor (Pizza Deliverance) and the next three did so with mastery, creating classic songs that captured the three songwriters’ personal experiences in a way that felt universal, even to those of us who’ve never stepped foot on Alabama soil.
2006′s A Blessing and a Curse (ABAAC) was a major departure for me and a lot of fans. While there were a few solid tracks, there were more signs that maybe the Truckers had gone soft. In 2007, Jason Isbell left the band, and in 2008 Brighter Than Creation’s Dark was released to the sound of a loud, wet thud. My emotional response to this album was to block it out. And I succeeded in doing so to the point where, when finding a CD labeled “DBT January 2008″ in my car last year, I had the following thought “WTF is this? The Truckers didn’t put out an album in 2008.”
So when Patterson Hood promised 2010′s The Big To-Do (again with the hyphen!) was going to be a return to rock, this DBT fan took a deep breath and adopted a position of cautious optimism. A lot of fans wondered if Isbell’s departure has spoiled DBT for good. I’m not sure there’s a clean answer to that question since both Isbell in his solo work and the Truckers seemed to veer into new territory, stylistically. Having said that, I’ll admit a certain amount of nostalgia colors my perspective on the last three studio albums. I’ll also concede that The Big To-Do may be the strongest of the trio — though this is not saying a lot.
This albums starts off well enough, and almost makes you feel like maybe the Truckers are gonna rock again. The first two tracks, “Daddy Learned to Fly” and “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” are my favorites. These tracks are easily on par with the stronger work on ABAAC or the middling tracks on The Dirty South.
But starting with track three of The Big To-Do, things start to derail. On “The Birthday Boy,” Mike Cooley sings about a tired, reluctant stripper. Instead of making me feel like I’m on on the joke, I just feel kind of sad. Things get worse on the next two tracks. “Drag the Lake Charlie” tells the story of a couple cops looking for their buddy, hoping he’s dead, cause otherwise his wife is going to make his life miserable if he’s just out drinking again. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” outlines a courtroom drama about a secretly-kinky preacher and his wife, who is on trial for killing him.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to empathize with or root for these characters. I just think they’re kind of sad and trashy. It may well be the first time I’ve listened to an album about the South and felt relief that I didn’t come from that particular shitty little town.
For me, the Truckers were one of those bands that made me long for Southern roots my family’s never seen. (I mean, not even close. My people are from Connecticut.) Even when exploring the seedy or sadistic sides of Southern life, they managed to create a certain romanticism and appeal of the whole “Southern thing”. When Cooley writes in “Zip City” about leaving his teenage girlfriend to her sad fate in their hometown, I was rooting for him. I applaud the fact that he “ain’t got no good intentions”. But the stories on The Big To-Do don’t create a sense of pride in either these places or people. There aren’t any underdogs in these songs, just a sense that everyone would be better off somewhere else.
The other major weakness of The Big To-Do are the two tracks sung (and presumably written) by bassist Shonna Tucker, “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be)/I Told You So”. They are nearly unlistenable. I was a supporter of Shonna at first, and have to recognize that it’s seriously cool to be a hot female bassist in a successful rock band, but, (and I’m just gonna come out and say this) sister can’t sing.
Musically, a lot of these songs feel half-baked, or maybe a little lazy (“This Fucking Job”, “Eyes Like Glue”). Others are just a little strange (“The Flying Wallendas”, anyone?).
For the time being, I’m done expending energy lamenting how this once-great band has become mediocre. Unless, of course, if you want to start a healthy debate in the comments.
You can stream and buy The Big To-Do at the DBT website.