ALBUM: English Oceans
ARTIST: Drive-By Truckers
In last week's feature I wrote about my desire for the new Drive-By Truckers album to return to the sound on their three albums I identify as their best: Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South. That sound, in contrast to what's found in their handful of albums since, is harder, simpler, and lyrically striking. With English Oceans, DBT brings much of that back while also hanging on to some of their newer tendencies. Almost everywhere throughout the album, that blend of old and new works. Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, the band's long-time front men, are consistently at the top of their songwriting here, particularly Cooley, who has a larger lyrical presence on this album than is seen on recent records. English Oceans, like most of the Truckers' greatest work, places a premium on storytelling, particularly those tales that place us in the blurry, dirty south—whether that be in a barroom, by a cross-shaped swimming pool, or in a quiet kitchen. The album's opening track, “Shit Shots Count,” is the best example of this and can be immediately thrown in with the group's best-ever songs: “Shit shots count if the table's tilted, just pay the man who levels the floor. Pride is what you charge a proud man for havin'. Shame is what you sell to a whore.”
This gritty return, this nod to the band's true nature, is refreshing. It isn't that these songs sound like other Truckers songs already written. The waltzy “Natural Light,” for example, is a song the likes of which I would have never predicted the band to write. Nonetheless, like the other songs on the album, it's successful because of its resistance to the experiments in a bigger, over-produced sound that has plagued the band's most recent records. English Oceans offers a simplicity in sound that Hood and Cooley find most natural, a sound that allows their poignant lyrics to stand tall, to hold an authenticity that comes through loud and clear on the Truckers' older albums. Songs like “Pauline Hawkins,” “Hearing Jimmy Loud,” and “Grand Canyon” all lean on this simple authenticity and are successful because of it. In “Grand Canyon” Patterson Hood laments the sudden and unexpected death of the band's long-time touring mate Craig Lieske. Hood has always held an affinity for sad stories in his songs, and this closing ballad is one of his best. It calls on some of the sounds from the great “Angels and Fuselage” on Southern Rock Opera, though it's more hopeful and, for Hood, directly personal.
Along with “Natural Light,” songs like “Pauline Hawkins” pull on some of DBT's newer habits. The fourth track on the album, “Pauline Hawkins” features a bright, front-loaded piano track that doesn't feel like useless debris. Rather, it helps drive the song with its punchiness and strings out a classic DBT interlude before the song's hard-rocking end that all Truckers fans will recognize and love. What might be the key to the success of this combination of new and old is the percussion and bass work on English Oceans. With Brad Morgan on drums and Matt Patton on bass, the songs rely on such foundational work throughout the album. On “Part of Him” the drum cadence and bass line plug along beneath a distorted rhythm guitar, occasional banjo, and Hood's vocals. Unlike a song like “Shit Shots Count,” this track doesn't immediately ask for listeners to turn it the hell up; as the song progresses, however, the punky cadence and bass line—things on which the band was founded and through which it truly opens up—nod the song to life. While English Oceans is certainly an album written with some of the band's older work in mind, it's this blend with the new that fans have been waiting for, and they've got it.
I've listened to the album about 12 full times this week in order to write this review. I'm not sick of it yet. The songs continue to unfold with each listen. This was my exact experience with previous Truckers albums that became my all-time favorites, albums that are widely considered the group's best. While this album doesn't supplant any of those aforementioned three albums, it's certainly a success. It loses momentum toward the end and isn't as consistency as other DBT records, but it meets my simple request I wrote about in last week's feature: that I've wanted it to be a record I can ask to hear at my favorite bar in Tuscaloosa. You might know a bar just like it. In Egan's, you can play darts, watch Jeopardy!, smoke, and roll dice for shots. You can drink some of Tuscaloosa's newest craft beers. You can tell stories to people you don't know. You can tell the truth, if you want. English Oceans can be your soundtrack for doing so.
“Meat's just meat, and it's all born dyin'. Some is tender and some is tough.”