The Big To-Do
The Big To-Do is arena-ready in sound and scope; maybe Drive-By Truckers knew they were heading out to the big leagues with Tom Petty when recording this one. The riff opening "Daddy Learned to Fly" is an air-guitar wonder; it sounds so good when I hit it along with them on my imaginary Les Paul. But its the second and third track that set this album apart. "The Fourth Night of My Drinking" may just be the best harrowing drinking ballad in Patterson Hood's ice chest. There is no good-ole-boy charm to the monster here.
On the third night of my drinking
I was standing outside your house
With a stick in my hand; I was sure some man
Was in there hiding out
That stick is more lethal than all nine bullets in his roommate's gun or the flaws in Lynyrd Skynryd's plane. It's the kind of thing that kills everyone involved a little and makes them live on. There is still one more night of drinking to be recounted. Who knows if anyone made it our alive, or if the narrator deteriorated beyond having a story.
It leads into Mike Cooley's devastating yet catchy peek into a hooker's thought process "Birthday Boy." Everyone's got problems, and Miss Trixie's cheerlessly offers, "Sit your narrow ass down, hot shot, I'll solve yours right now." Drive-By Truckers' strength has always been before the first-person survival tale, the grim morality of justified living, but in shifting into third, their narrative gains so much more traction.
The other thing that separates them from most every other great band willing to get real is that they still have a sense of humor. "Drag the Lake, Charlie" and "Get Downtown" are hilarious side-glances at the slapstick of promiscuity and joblessness respectively, each wrapped up in the kinds of geetar most bands are too pussy to attempt. "The Wig He Made Her Wear" is more complex a tune: is it an indictment of the hypocritical, bullying preacher lying dead on the floor or of the simplistic mores that allow his wife to escape prosecution? Who do you feel for, if anyone? Are all of us to blame? Does it all just go to shit sometimes on its own?
The power hit single if there's to be one "This Fucking Job" asks similar questions in more direct terms. It is a "take this job and stop shoving me already" twist on the blue-collar blues, where little cartoonish pride is to be gleaned from the American Dream, "This family can't live on these fast-food wages" but unlike similar tales in their catalog like "Goode's Field Road" on Brighter Than Creation's Dark or The Dirty South's "Puttin' People on the Moon", his protagonist doesn't turn desperately to crime. Instead he turns defiantly bitter, sanded away by the grind. He tells doggedly chokes it all down with bromides
Nobody told me it'd be easy
Or for that matter, it'd be so hard
But it's the livin' and learnin'
It makes the difference
It makes it all worthwhile
Of course it does, but I don't buy it. Nobody buys it. He doesn't buy it. His family is just happy he's not running drugs and killing people at the junkyard like his brothers in song have all done before. The intrepid rocker Virgil on this tour of slow-burn hell laments the winnowing of the the music that was supposed to distract from all this dissatisfaction in "After the Scene Dies"
And they box up the
And they take the sound system down
Guitars back in their cases.
Don't forget my fries
After the scene dies
Bassist Shonna Tucker's sunny country single "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So" lacks the heft of the material that precedes it, but it's a break that's sorely needed. The band gets their sunset cosmic Americana on with "Santa Fe," Hood, his history allegory in the "The Flying Wallendas" and Cooley, a wistful shot of fatherly pride at closing time with "Eyes Like Glue" As strong as this record comes on, it whispers good night on the way out. It's the mark of a mature band that can do so much more with little movements, small details than the ragged glory hounds they once were could with sweeping, fated gestures. It's why they are still the band to contend with in the last gasps of American rock.
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