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 around.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com