Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans

The Truckers rewind their sound on an album that delivers for fans both old and new.

Additional Info

7.3

ALBUM: English Oceans

ARTIST: Drive-By Truckers

2014

Rock

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.”

1. Shit Shots Count
This will be the first song from the new album that I'll request to hear at the bar. It is pure Drive-By Truckers. Three heavily distorted guitars work to build the rhythm, and Cooley's lyrics are at the forefront: “Friday night rich is all you're ever gonna be.” Each guitarist gets his turn at a solo as the song rocks on and on. The bass line walks up and down between octaves with short, punchy notes, and the song ends with horns blaring. This will be a crowd favorite at live shows. It's a perfect opening to the album, and it's indicative of what's to come.9.5
2. When He's Gone
A single distorted riff rings out to start the song—another nod to that classic DBT sound. Like other songs on the album, Hood's lyrics offer us a look into a character in an emotional vacuum: “She burns like an effigy when he's gone. It makes her mad how attached she's become.” Morgan's drum work here is a consistent, simple string of high-hat, snare, and bass that drives the song in and out of its verses and chorus. Its storytelling—“She can't stand to have him around, but she always misses him when he's gone”—isn't as fresh and crackling as some of Hood's other songs on the album.7.5
3. Primer Coat
Featuring some of Cooley's best songwriting on the album, “Primer Coat” relies on memorable images, such as “Slinging gravel in parking lots and looking tough on the hood,” and “He's staring through his own taillights and gathering speed.” Those who want the song to rock a little harder or throw in something a little more complex to complement the lyrics might be a little disappointed. Cooley's voice is soft in this one, and the backing instrumental tracks don't do much. The guitar solo in the middle of the song feels forced.5.0
4. Pauline Hawkins
The track begins with a quiet, simple riff that soon changes into the song's main rhythm, which features a piano melody. Hood begins, “Don't call me your baby. I won't answer. Love is like cancer, and I am immune.” It's got a jumpy cadence with a lot of bass drum and at times sounds a little like The Flaming Lips. The song quiets to a piano-and-guitar-feedback interlude before rising to a hard-rocking finish. This is one of the best songs on the album.8.5
5. Made Up English Oceans
This is the only song that really feels out of place, which is surprising, given its status as the title track. It's barely held up with Cooley's songwriting, which is politically critical: “Only simple men can see the logic in whatever smarter men can whittle down 'til you can fit it on a sticker.” The Truckers seem to be trying on some sort of Western folk thing here, but it doesn't work. While Cooley's lyrics are memorable, they're sung in a near-trembling way that robs them of their potential, and the band's accompaniment quickly becomes boring.4.0
6. The Part of Him
Another political track, “The Part of Him” makes its point from the beginning: “He was elected, wingnut-raised and corn fed, teabags dragging on the chamber floor.” In between lyrics, the guitars and bass align, playing the same short riff two times over. This is a smart change from the plodding rhythm of each verse, and as the song progresses, a banjo comes in and out of scene. A song about the widespread corruption of politicians, it ends on the song's title: “When he got out of line, they snatched him up from behind and put him in a box with fancy trim. Rolled him out for all to see his rendezvous with destiny. Now someone else will play the part of him.”7.3
7. Hearing Jimmy Loud
DBT has always had great characters on their albums, and Jimmy's story doesn't disappoint. We hear about Jimmy's “last old lady” in the second verse: “Said she only hollered when she'd stood as much as she could stand. Jimmy's ego can take it, baby. Go on and fake it loud as you can.” The bass and fuzzy guitar are aligned through most of the song, as they wind through a riff that undercuts expectations by carrying on for a few measures longer than expected. The song ends with what Cooley has learned: “The moral lessons of a charmed life only get through guilty ears. Thanks to learning luck and half sense, I'm hearing Jimmy loud and clear.” This one might have rocked a little longer, but it satisfies.7.5
8. Til He's Dead or Rises
Written by Patterson Hood and sung by Cooley, “Til He's Dead Or Rises,” makes use of some of the album's best songwriting. It begins, “When she met him they were teenagers. He was no more than seventeen. She was a little less than all that but held the bit between her teeth.” The drums again do a lot of the leg work in this one, working beneath an understated guitar riff to drive the song along. At times, Patton's bass work stretches out, adding a nice variation to his usual background role. By this point, it's clear that English Oceans is betting on its smart lyrics to carry it. Most of the time, it's winning that bet.7.3
9. Hanging On
Hood's vocals are front-and-center here, as Morgan's percussion never appears, and Patton's bass only joins until the song is minutes old. A dark track, Hood laments, “It isn't any wonder when the darkness pulls you under from the weight of all your wonderment, and the price you have to pay leaves you feeling kinda sickly, and it all comes due so quickly, it's hard to get out from under it.” This song feels like it might not have made the cut for one of Hood's solo records, but that's not an indictment. He's always been great on a track by himself—such as in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” on The Dirty South. This quiet track provides a nice contrast to the rest of the album and works to prepare us for the songs handful of closing numbers.7.0
10. Natural Light
Perhaps the most surprising track on the album, “Natural Light” is one of English Ocean's best. Cooley's piano blues waltz, he sings, “It's your natural light I need to guide me home. I'll bring it about if you'll just let it show.” A slower drum cadence and honky-tonk piano keep the song afloat, and between verses we hear some simple soloing work that complements the mood of the song. Cooley continues, “When the countdown is up, you'll wake up my love and shine with your own light again.” This doesn't sound like Drive-By Truckers of old, but it's a great song.8.7
11. When Walter Went Crazy
A good example of blending DBT's new love of a foregrounded piano with Hood's ability to tell memorable tales, “When Walter Went Crazy” features another memorable character, who went crazy and “walked out of the bedroom with a cigarette in his mouth, and he poured gasoline in a circle all around the house.” Lots of piano and bass work help this track along, though the lyrics remain the center of attention: “When Walter went crazy he had rattlesnake in his eyes, blended whiskey in his veins, and murder in his heart.”7.7
12. First Air of Autumn
Cooley's turn for a quiet track, he returns to his singing mode heard on Decoration Day's “When The Pin Hits The Shell.” The song's soft, quick drum work is a nice contrast to the slower lament in the lyrics: “The nurture and the admonition of your kind, the rules of only strong survive. Cross-shaped swimming pools, down in the blood and lifted up, forever seeking favor from the light.” The album's losing some momentum, but this isn't necessarily a throw-away track. The acoustic guitar work, when left by itself to shine through, is tight and concise.6.5
13. Grand Canyon
The record's concluding ballad, “Grand Canyon” is about the death of a friend of the band. The song makes reference to “cascades of faded light,” and Hood's guitar work reflects such an image in its traveling up and down the melody. In the midst of the tale, Hood sings, “We drove across the wastelands until we finally reached the sea, and I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.” This is a fantastic closing track. Listen to this song on a road trip—perhaps to see someone you've loved, someone you may have lost. Roll the windows down. Turn it up. 9.0
Written by P.J. Williams
P. J. Williams writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, and others.



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