Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans
A dozen albums down, Peach State heroes the Drive-By Truckers appear to have settled in for the long haul – no pun intended – and are capitalizing on their reputation as premiere torchbearers of the Southern aesthetic in all its tattered, post-Confederacy glory. In 2014, that doesn’t mean, for the band who broke through in 2001 with the classic Southern Rock Opera album, emitting the proverbial rebel yell at the drop of a NASCAR flag; it means digging deeper into what it means to both live in and chronicle the region.
The atypically-titled (for a Southern band) English Oceans gets its name from guitarist Mike Cooley’s song “Made Up English Oceans,” an equally atypical (for the Truckers) minor chord shuffle about the infamous Lee Atwater’s so-called “Southern Strategy,” or more accurately the late Republican planner’s ideas about how to bring young men from below the Mason-Dixon line into his line of thinking. No so coincidentally, co-leader Patterson Hood’s “The Party Of Him,” a modal-tinged delta blues for banjo and acoustic guitar, follows immediately after; it brings the Atwater worldview of political throat-cutting at any cost into the present. But even if 2014 is a midterm election year, the DBTs aren’t going all red/blue on us with English Oceans; there’s far more at stake – like just getting by in the current economy, or hanging on to a precious relationship even as its foundation crumbles. Both Hood and Cooley contribute equally, suggesting a shifting dynamic for the band because in the past Hood was clearly the dominant songwriter. The process results in such twangy gems as Cooley’s “Hearing Jimmy Loud” (about “the moral lessons of a charmed life,” no less) and his Skynyrdesque “Shit Shots Count,” along with Hood’s mournful-yet-rocking “When He’s Gone” (a character study of a put-upon gal who’s maybe out of options… maybe) and the Sticky Fingers-like “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” which, surprisingly, finds Cooley singing his partner’s lyrics about another put-upon individual. You’ll have to listen to it to find out who it is.
With a cast of characters not so much colorful as painted in shades of grey, the record demands your attention beyond just tapping the feet and slapping the thighs. It’s a grower, in other words. And although there’s no Bic-flicking anthem here on the order of Hood’s “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” (from 2003’s Decoration Day) or Cooley’s “Self Destructive Zones” (2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark), no overtly “Sweet Home Alabama”-styled crowd pleaser, English Oceans is so satisfyingly stocked with literate rockers and brooding balladry that longtime DBTs fans will be settling in themselves with the album for many moons to come.