In Brief: A bit laborious at first, but there’s a ton of buried treasure within this alt-country band’s 19-song opus.
Sometimes the most intriguing songwriters choose to leave out the moral of the story. Maybe it’s a conscious effort to not get too preachy with one’s audience, or maybe it’s just the simple practice of observation, letting things simply be what they are without the need to generalize one man’s story to all of humanity, or to explicitly label rights and wrongs. Whatever, the case, the Drive-By Truckers seem to have this gift, filling their songs with just enough details to establish seedy characters and dust-blown locales that could exist anywhere in small-town America, but leaving enough mystery in each vignette to make us wonder what makes each character tick. These four guys and one gal from Alabama either have vivid imaginations, or they’ve seen a lot of heartache and drunken revelry in their collective years on this Earth. Truth is, it’s probably a bit of both.
The band’s latest album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark, is nearly a year old now. I’ve been listening to it for almost as long, after an aborted attempt to get into the band with 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse, apparently a transitional effort for the group that sounded pretty interesting due to their snarling “three-axe attack” version of highly electrified country music, but that failed to grab me on an emotional level. Brighter than Creation’s Dark, despite its absolutely daunting 75-minute length and its sprawling, sidewinding selection of 19 (!) songs, has managed to rope me in. Don’t ask me why, because I’m not really into country music, I’m normally not a fan of songs about getting drunk and/or depressed, and I only pass through the kinds of places described on this album on the occasional road trip. Maybe it’s just curiosity. But the diversity of song ideas that came from this group’s three songwriters makes a trip through the album surprisingly non-tedious. And there’s plenty of Southern-fried guitar goodness to go around, in between some of the sleepier moments that mosey on by to the weepy tones of the pedal steel. There’s even an atmospheric experiment or two, sometimes butting up against the band’s biggest crash-bang jam sessions. You just never know what you’re gonna get.
Of course, with an album this long, there’s bound to be a downside. Sure, there might be a few dud songs here. None are totally bad, but there are a few that overstay their welcome or that seem like incomplete experiments. That’s not such a big deal, when there’s more high quality material to be found on a single album than a lot of bands could muster within the space of two. The bigger thing to get over for a lot of folks, I suspect, will be the heavily accented voices that head up the band. Oddly enough, the group’s vocal configuration sort of reminds me of old-school Caedmon’s Call, where they’ve got the “everyman” vocalist (Patterson Hood) heading up most of the songs, the “scratchy alternative guy” (Mike Cooley) belting out some of the more esoteric, “wonder-what-inspired-that-one” sorts of songs, and “the gal” (Shonna Tucker) offering a few pieces of her own. The comparison ends there – this isn’t a brightly produced folk/rock outfit, though they do have their more laid-back acoustic moments and even the occasional bit of theological musing (though it’s generally not terribly optimistic regarding the topics of God and the afterlife). I like all three voices, but they can sound a bit harsh and muddy at first (yes, even Shonna). The way that they alternate the spotlight between the three singers, each taking the lead role on their own material, makes a number of songs stand out more than they might with the same lead vocalist all the way through. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s worth taking the time to let the Truckers grow on you.
Obviously, with this album containing 19 songs, this is gonna be a long review. But there’s really no way to do the album justice without exploring specific examples of their observational skills and their stylistic diversity, so feel free to skim and jump around to get a feel for it (probably a good approach to the album itself for first-timers, too) if it’s too much to take on all at once. I’ll understand!
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
1. Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife
When he reached the gates of heaven, he didn’t understand
He knew that folks were coming over, or was it all a dream?
Was it all a crazy dream?
There are two things that common sense dictates you should probably never lead off a rock album with – a gentle acoustic track and a song about death. That might be common sense for more commercial bands, anyway, but lead Trucker Patterson Hood blows right through the established rules and leads off with this breezy little ballad about a guy who is surprised to find himself at the old pearly gates with no prior warning. It makes no sense to him, or to the people tragically left behind, including his mourning family. And the song’s really just about how the guy wasn’t prepared – no grand moralizing, no universal statements about what we’re all gonna experience when we die. Just the small amount of comfort found in the thought that maybe vengeance doesn’t need to exist in Heaven, and maybe up there, “Every day is Saturday morning”. It’s a sad but lovely little number, with a generous amount of banjo plucking to remind you that it’s a country song.
2. 3 Dimes Down
If the part about being who he was didn’t help Tom get loose
What’s a guy without a T. gonna get?
Totally screwed, while chicken wing puke
Eats the candy apple red off his Corvette…
Mike Cooley apparently prefers the exact opposite approach to Hood’s when starting off an album, and the mood abruptly transitions to an electric-fried electric guitar fest as Cooley whips out his most aggressive, cranky vocal approach for a rather odd song about some rather salacious goings-on in the backseat of a car, and getting so boozed up that you barf and, uh… not having the right change for the vending machine? OK, so I don’t really get this one. There will be better songs from Mr. Cooley later in the album, but for now, I can at least appreciate the raunchy, squealing guitars.
3. The Righteous Path
I got a couple of opinions that I hold dear
A whole lot of debt, and a whole lot of fear
I got an itch that needs scratching, but it feels alright
I got the need to blow it out on a Saturday night…
Hood comes up with a pretty good “slice of life” number here, more of a straight-ahead rocker than finds him offering a bit of wiseguy advice about how to be an upstanding citizen and keep up with the Joneses keep your butt out of trouble. There’s a lot of pragmatism butting heads with youthful idealism here, as the guy brags about all of his decent accomplishments that aren’t anything too fancy but that seem to be the respectable accomplishments that society demands of any normal guy. The most telling characteristic of this guy is that “I don’t know God, but I fear his wrath.” It sort of hints at how religion is pervasive in this guy’s culture, to the point where he has certain expectations to live up to even if he doesn’t really buy into the belief system. It begs an unspoken question about the nature of religion and what it’s used for – are people bettering their lives or just using it as a measuring stick to evaluate themselves as being better than others?
4. I’m Sorry Huston
You just missed Huston, he was lookin’ so confused
I guess he really needed you
He was old and tired and lookin’ for the truth
I guess ol’ Huston’s got the blues…
Shonna Tucker gets her first turn at the mic here, and like Mr. Cooley, I’m not so sure she’s positioned her best song upfront, which is a little more problematic because she only contributes three songs out of nineteen on this album. Her words seem a bit drunken and slurred, which probably fits the setting of the song, but which means her voice has to grow on me for a bit before I can fully understand her lyrics. She’s telling a sad story of meeting a stranger who is looking for his long lost wife/lover/daughter/whoever, but who just misses her as she shows up right after he heads on to the next town. There’s not really much of conclusion to draw from this short vignette, which is why it doesn’t stay with me, but John Neff‘s wobbly, cry-in-your-beer-style lap steel sure is lovely.
5. Perfect Time
I might have known before if I’d got this old before
I thought I got too cool to give a damn
That who you see in dreams at night seem to spend their afterlives
Trying hard to live the last one down…
A more up-tempo acoustic track is up next, which really gives the guys a change to show off some solid fingerwork while drummer Brad Morgan does that old “train shuffling by” thing that you hear in a lot of folk/country songs. While brief, this song strikes a chord as it talks about the things we let ourselves get away with as we age, leeting our ideals die a cold and lonely death in favor of not feeling too guilty about the things we haven’t accomplished. This one feels like a confession that stands in contrast with “The Righteous Path”, which is more of a song about a guy putting up a front and insisting he’s still living an upright and respectable life.
6. Daddy Needs a Drink
Daddy needs a drink to hem in all his demons
To hear through baby screaming or the TV set turned on
There ain’t nothing on the radio like the wave my transmitter’s on
Put that drinking jacket on, and enjoy a little fog …
Another “weepy ballad” comes along here – the acoustic finger-picking approach is softspoken enough to feel like they’re trying to avoid waking or angering someone. Of course the lap steel is back, too – a song about alcohol just wouldn’t feel right without it. But there’s a little more depth to this one than just drinking your sorrows away. In a roundabout way, as “daddy” insists that “momma” pour him a nice cold one so he can zone out for a while, Hood is subtly hinting at the people who get left behind as he disappears into his fog. Maybe this only happens on a bad day – or maybe it happens everyday. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in violence or verbal abuse or any of that after-school-special stuff you might expect a song about daddy drinking to moralize about. And I think it’s more relatable that way, because how many of us get home from a long day at work, and the last thing we want to do is think and interact with our families? Maybe it’s not alcohol that numbs those evenings away – maybe it’s food or TV or the Internet. Maybe sometimes that’s OK. But there’s a sad tint to this song that gives it a sort of resignation, sort of alluding that this happens more often than it should.
7. Self Destructive Zones
The hippies rode a wave putting smiles on faces
That the devil wouldn’t even put a shoe
Caught between a generation dying from its habits
And another thinking rock and roll was new…
Here’s a bit of wit and levity when we needed it most. Cooley goes postal on all things “alternative” here, with this sardonic little bar tune that tips its hat to the long lost “grunge days”, when folks traded their leather jackets for flannel shirts, when real men gazed at their shoes… when I was in college, basically. You don’t hear a lot of nostalgia for the 90’s in music today (I figure society has to be at least two decades removed before nostalgia for a particular decade really “kicks in”), and I wasn’t really all that socially aware in the 80’s, so it’s a treat to hear this amusing bit of backlash at the decade where I came of age, which basically looks back and says, “What the hell were we thinking?” Cooley points out the irony of how all of those depressed and disenchanted alt-rockers either died, or got too successful to be believably bummed out about life, essentially causing the trend to eat itself. There’s some other weirdness about stoners and dragons and maybe even a hint at the tennybopper trend that eventually kicked grunge off the charts, so I could probably do a little more work to fully “get” this song, but what I understand of it so far cracks me up.
He used to watch the news, but he don’t anymore
Ain’t none of it new, it’s the same as before
He figures all any of it’s any good for is keeping everybody bored
‘Til there ain’t nobody like Bob anymore…
Another low-key acoustic track shows up here, this one serving as Cooley’s ode to the everyman – just a good-old boy who makes an honest living somewhere out in the sticks, tries to take care of his ailing mother, and who is apparently introverted enough to be more comfortable by himself in a fishing boat than on a date. Maybe he’s lonely, or maybe he just likes it that way. You don’t want to be him, but you can’t really hate him, because he makes no apologies for being plain, simple Bob, and not posing as anyone or anything else.
9. Home Field Advantage
You may have thrown me a curveball
Yeah, you threw a doozie at me
You ain’t too fast ’cause you’re so tall
You threw a doozie at me…
Tucker’s second track is up next, and I’ve got to admit I’ve always got a soft spot for songs where the lone female in a band gets to rock out. Shonna does this in the Truckers’ usual raucous style, with a messy, clattering drum intro and a bit of a sneer in her voice as she indicts a suspect who she’s realized apparently trying to hit on her. Apparently he’s one of those dudes who knows the turf and thinks he’s got an inside track on what the local women want – a “home field advantage”, as her metaphor goes. She doesn’t say whether it works or not – such is the ambiguous nature of many Drive-By Truckers songs. But it’s an interesting performance by the band (even if the outro drags on for a bit longer than it really needs to), and vocally, she knocks it out of the park (pun on the song’s title intended).
10. The Opening Act
There’s a band on stage that used to be huge
They sound on but no one’s listening
They’re told to turn down and they politely oblige
Ain’t no such thing as a free ride…
Speaking of songs that drag on longer than I need to, this rambling, meandering bit of folksy phiosophy definitely overstays its welcome, at six minutes plus. I don’t hate it – Cooley shows a keen eye for observation once again as he notes the rather seedy nightlife at a local bar, fat dudes getting thrown from mechanical bulls and all, and then he realizes he’s the guy in the band that got hired to play that bar, while everyone there’s too drunk or depressed to notice or care about his music. He knows his place, so he politely packs up and hits the road. This is interesting enough at first, until the melancholy melody repeats itself one too many times and I’m left thinking, “Just get on with it already.” The song ends ambiguously with the guy hearing a preacher on the radio as he drives towards his next gig at sunrise, and he just shrugs it off and switches to another station. Thus far, a lot of the characters in these songs don’t seem to have much use for religion – either they figure they’re good enough to save themselves, or they figure they’re too far gone to be saved. I’m not sure which one is the case here. I’m not sure if either interpretation was intended, either.
11. Lisa’s Birthday
It’s a good thing that her dancing shoes don’t run on gasoline
She could dry up Texas in one night the way she feels that beat…
Another slightly tedious song comes in the form of this old-school country shuffle, which tries to tell the story of a drunken damsel in distress with a sly wink and an attempt to be funny, but its analogies seem a bit too scattershot to really make me chuckle. (Are there really that many country songs about “trying to love two women and only taking one girl home”? Guess I just don’t have enough experience with country music to know one way or the other.) Anyway, the main joke here is that it isn’t really Lisa’s birthday at all – she “keeps on turning 21”, and basically, she just needs an excuse to get weasted, leaving the poor sap singing this song to come pick her up and take her home. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be sad or funny – probably a bit of both.
12. That Man I Shot
That man I shot, I was in his homeland
I was there to help him, but he didn’t want me there
I did not hate him, I still don’t hate him
He was trying to kill me, and I had to take him down…
AWESOME. The band whips out their meanest, gnarliest riff here, and this is one instance where I don’t mind the band stretching a song out to a leisurely six minutes, because they really tear it up on this one. Oddly enough, it’s the most insanely repetitive song on the album, with the rhythm guitar cranking out the same progression over and over, while the other guitarists grind and squeal away, and Hood wails about a recurring nightmare experienced by a war veteran still haunted by his first kill. If you’re gonna write a protest song about the war in Iraq, or really any war (since this one isn’t specific enough to pin it to any point in history), this is how you do it, not by preaching at the audience, but simply by illustrating the inherent moral conflict and letting the audience be pumped up or disgusted or reacting however they react to the story. It’s a three-dimensional issue – the guy knows he was doing his joib, and that’s simply the reality of war, but still he can’t get over wondering whether this guy had his own wife and kids and all that. This track is the crown jewel of the album, and probably the one I’d recommend trying first if you’re at all inclined to check out the band. It’s weird to have it buried so deep in the track listing, but then again, on a nineteen-track album, you probably don’t want to blow all of your best material right at the beginning. This one works better when built up to.
13. The Purgatory Line
If Jesus walked on water, then where’d he get them shoes?
It just keeps gettin’ harder to lose these walkin’ blues…
The chilling, wailing outro of “That Man I Shot” bleeds ominously into the album’s quietest song, which is perhaps one of their most experimental, eschewing guitars almost completely for gentle, chimey keyboard tones and a peaceful but disorienting sort of atmosphere. This is Shonna Tucker’s finest moment, as she cries out from a confused place, an ambiguous waiting room somewhere past the grave, trying to figure out whether she’s headed for heaven or hell. Her analogies, while sometimes irreverent, are right on the money for someone still trying to get a handle on this whole religion thing. Maybe it doesn’t even need to be from the perspective of a person who died. Maybe it’s just someone feeling like they’ve arrived at a “purgatory” state in their lives, and aren’t sure what to believe that will get them out of it. Given what we’ve learned about the function religion plays in the lives of some of this record’s other characters, I can’t say I blame this woman for being confused. I sympathize with her. And that makes it one of the loveliest and most daring songs that I’ve heard from the Truckers thus far.
14. The Home Front
Now they’re saying on the flat screen
They ain’t found a reason yet
We’re all bogged down in a quagmire
And there ain’t no end to it…
Hood takes a slightly more direct approach to expressing his frustration with an endless war here, on a song which sympathizes with the wife left to pick up the pieces at home, continuously dealing with broken promises regarding timetables for when her husband’s tour of duty will be over. Hood’s not afraid to label this for the bullsh!t that it really is (this is the strongest language that the band uses, with only mild expletives on other scattered tracks, and it feels like they saved it for where it would hit the hardest). His indignance on this woman’s behalf is truly convincing, and while the slow electric groove of the song doesn’t make it one of the band’s most compelling numbers on a musical level, it’s interesting to compare this one to “That Man I Shot” and “The Purgatory Line”, and to see what might just be three different points of view on the same story.
15. Checkout Time in Vegas
They’ll be after me by the time the buffet closes
Making sure sin city still shines brighter than creations dark
If all you need is a badge to take what’s left from those who lost it
A badge ain’t no more real than bullets are…
While this is the track that gives the album its title, I can’t say that it really stands out to me that much, despite it being one of the few Truckers songs which describes a place that I’ve actually been. Sin City itself takes the brief spotlight, but there’s no glitz and glamour and neon here – the slow, dusky music makes it feel like it could be describing any old Podunk town. (Sorry, you were expecting The Killers?) It seems to be about a man who’s committed a crime (or who has been framed for one), and who is being hunted down by a corrupt police force. I might be letting my imagination run away with me there, but since the lyrics are minimal and more impressionistic than explanatory, that’ll have to do. I’m not sure how this illustrates that the sun “only rises once” in Vegas, but whatever. I can’t overanalyze ’em all!
16. You and Your Crystal Meth
I ain’t exactly a no-drug guy
Don’t dig the way that you get high
Hope your kids don’t see you throwing up
Hope they ain’t there if the house blows up…
It’s very unusual for the piano to be the lead instrument in such a guitar heavy band. But the Truckers are back in experimental mode here, allowing a simple sequence of seven notes from the piano to repeat in a trance-like fashion, while the lap steel sounds off, playing the role of a slow, sad siren coming to drag a lost cause meth addict off to jail. It’s the one point on the album where the moral of the story is beyond obvious, because Hood just doesn’t want his buddy messing around with this stuff, endangering the lives of his friends and family in the process. The placement seems a bit odd for a song that basically says, “Kids, don’t do drugs”, but it’s an honest part of “small-town America right next door” that the band apparently felt it was important not to flinch away from, so to some extent, I have to admire their courage here.
17. Goode’s Field Road
But you and me, we had us some good times
And I’ve always been a family man deep down
Ain’t much of a believer in hiring work from out of state
But they’ll be asking questions when I’m found…
There’s an almost R&B-like feel to this song’s slow electric groove, by way of extremely muddy blues, but wound up all tightly, sucking the joy and life out of the rhythm. It makes sense, because there’s not much to be joyful about here, in a song which finds a man at his wit’s end, making a last-ditch effort to make some money for his family, which essentially involves a one-way trip down a dark country road with a hitman-for-hire at the end of it. This is incredibly dark stuff, but the song’s about more than just murder – it’s about the circumstances and betrayals that let this man to his circumstances. Needless to say, those who find country music depressing already should steer clear. Personally, I think it’s a compelling story, and at this point, about an hour into the album, a band has to be doing something right to still have me paying close enough attention to realize that their song is about something so grim.
18. A Ghost to Most
I don’t know how good it does a man
To keep on telling him how good it is he’s free
Free to wash his ghost down the drain
And free for them to tell him there’s no such a thing…
Cooley’s last bit of observational musing comes across as even odder than the mutant “3 Dimes Down” – though it’s notably catchier, featuring a chorus that almost begs for a sing-along, once you get the chance to catch up with all the words. My interpretation skills have apparently up and left me for the duration of this one, which means that I can’t offer any insight on why skeletons would wear britches, what it means to judge someone else’s sheet (is that like wearing a sheet as a cheap Halloween costume to look like a ghost, or does it mean you’re a member of the KKK, or…?), or why he’s happy that his momma’s dead and doesn’t have to find out he’s going against her wisdom by writing this song. Yeah, I got nothing. That’s not to say Cooley’s a bad songwriter – I just have to admit that his reach often exceeds my grasp.
19. The Monument Valley
It’s all about where you put the horizon
Said the Great John Ford to the young man rising
You got to frame it just right and have some luck of course
And it helps to have a tall man sitting on the horse…
Those who managed to hang in there for the duration of such a long album will be rewarded – or just plain put to sleep – by this lazy little ode to a natural wonder tucked away in northeastern Arizona, one which has served as an iconic location for many Western films, making its image synonymous with the “cowboy riding off into the sunset” cliche. That’s what this song does – it rides off slowly into the sunset, and I actually appreciate the lazy, lonely mood here, with the lap steel bringing to mind the vivid oranges, reds, and eventual purples of a desert sunset, and the unspoken “what if?” that prompts me to ponder what becomes of the cowboy who is revered for saving the day, but who ends the story as a loner, an outcast by his own choosing. The implication is that heroes are more complex than we make them out to be, and that good filmmaking is a mingling of historical facts and fantastical eulogies. It’s beautiful, in its own stark way. You’d expect the band to be running out of ideas by the bitter end of their album, but instead, they chose to end it on one of its strongest compositions. Knowing that always gives me just enough of a push to make it all the way through in one sitting.
Since most listeners aren’t me, though, I would advice approaching Brighter than Creation’s Dark a little bit at a time – perhaps by checking out some of the highlights I’ve brought to your attention – before trying to digest the whole thing at once. It’s like one of those classic movies that attempts to be an epic three or foour-hour saga detailing the entire life and times of a hero who helped to win the West or something – sometimes it might be better to break it up into a miniseries over a few consecutive nights, so that the slow, dramatic scenes don’t seem to drag down the pace as much between the intense gunfights and the heroic moments where the cavalry rides in to save the day. I suppose you’ll figure out on your own how to handle so many interesting songs being presented to you all at once, but whatever the case, if you don’t mind taking your moody alternative rock music with a little twang, or your country music with a little sludge, then you could probably find a lot to love about the Drive-By Truckers.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife $1.50
3 Dimes Down $.50
The Righteous Path $1
I’m Sorry Huston $.50
Perfect Time $1
Daddy Needs a Drink $1
Self Destructive Zones $1.50
Home Field Advantage $1
The Opening Act $.50
Lisa’s Birthday $.50
That Man I Shot $2
The Purgatory Line $2
The Home Front $1
Checkout Time in Vegas $.50
You and Your Crystal Meth $.50
Goode’s Field Road $1
A Ghost to Most $.50
The Monument Valley $1.50
Mike “The Stroker Ace” Cooley: Guitar, vocals, bass
Patterson Hood: Guitar, vocals, bass
John Neff: Guitar, pedal steel, vocals
Shonna Tucker: Bass guitar, upright bass, vocals
Brad “The EZB” Morgan: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.