Steve Wilson. On music.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thus continues the Top 25 for 2010 Countdown!

Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 23, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press, as I have in this case. In the event one of my top 25 selections isn't something I've reviewed previously I'll dash off a new review.

I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.

25. Jon Langford - Old Devils (Bloodshot)
24. Vaselines - Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
23. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO)

"Southern-rock to the bone, minus embarrassment"
Twelve years and eight studio records into a substantial career, the Drive-By Truckers are exemplars of smart, swaggering Southern rock. On The Big To-Do Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s tales of underclass tragedy — some reportorial, some skeptical, and some empathetic — are sharply rendered. Hood and Cooley are North Alabamans who migrated to the college music Mecca of Athens. That migration is telling; if this is southern rock, it’s southern rock that has more in common with Flannery O’Conner or Missouri’s Daniel Woodrell than the Allman Brothers first-person blues drones. And as pocket-deep as the rhythm section plays, guitarists Cooley and Jeff Neff interpret Johnny Thunders through the gospel of Warner Hodges (Jason and the Nashville Scorchers) and mimic Neil Young more than they do Garry Rossington or Dickey Betts.

Patterson Hood, son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section stalwart bassist David Hood, whose strained tenor and Paul Westerberg crosses the Mason-Dixon line sensibilities have come to define the band’s character, is the de facto band leader here with songwriting credits on eight of the albums' thirteen songs. Hood’s solo record Murdering Oscar was one of my 2009 faves. On Murdering Oscar, his guitar arrangements were sparer, evoking Mike Campbell or Richard Thompson. The Drive-By Truckers is a more lumbering beast, but even with the occasional sludge that the three guitars trip creates, for the most part the band is a formidable outfit, firing on all six cylinders like a heavier Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or a Hold Steady covered in kudzu.

Hood’s songs are drunkard’s laments (“The Fourth Night of My Drinking”), stories of the sexual mania underlying religious conservatism (the preacher’s wife kills the reprobate rev in "The Wig He Made Her Wear"), and tales of downward mobility (he’s a southern Springsteen in “This Fucking Job”), and a host of other real-life scenarios. Cooley’s “Birthday Boy” is told from the point of view of a stripper/hooker named Trixie (get it?) and “Get Downtown” concerns a deadbeat boyfriends’ remonstrations that his girlfriend find work instead of his working for her dad. Bassist Shonna Tucker’s simple love (lorn) ditties provide a little generic relief; the simple, but effective “You Got Another” is especially appealing with its Gillian Welch/David Rawlings harmonies on the refrain.

Paternity must be on the minds of Hood and Cooley. The album opens with “Daddy Learned to Fly,” a son’s lament for his departed (dead?) father, ingeniously dressed up in a southern “Space Oddity” motif, and closes with Cooley’s “Eyes Like Glue,” a bittersweet recognition of fatherhood’s role modeling obligations.

They write smart, homespun songs. They play the hell out of them. Their humor is infectious, poetic, and sometimes profound. There’s plenty to love about the Drive-By Truckers. The Big To-Do is an inspired testimony to their musical chemistry.

Reverberating: 8.4 (original), upgraded to 8.7