Drive-By Truckers release great new album, ‘English Oceans’

By Jackson Maxwell

Flickr/Wieland van Dijk
Flickr/Wieland van Dijk

Drive-By Truckers are a band of subtle nuances. They are a band that owes a large debt to classic ‘70s long hair, long solos and southern rock and are not afraid to show it. But at the same time, they manage to avoid many of the more unfortunate trappings that genre tends to bring with it.  They are always proud when it comes to discussing their southern heritage and roots. But, the relationship they have with their region of origin is also a complicated one, one that cannot be easily simplified or made into a punch line. 

On one of the band’s trademark songs, “The Southern Thing,” Patterson Hood discusses “the duality of the southern thing.” He sings of his, and his southern brethren’s, hatred of the south’s stigma. Hood had a great-great-grandfather who was shot at Shiloh, a tale he still loves to speak about and share. And it is not at all because he believes that the cause of slavery was one worth fighting for, it is because the south really is its own kind of place. The love Drive-By Truckers shows for the south is not a clichéd, stereotypical or jingoistic kind. It is an honest kind, one which acknowledges all of the region’s idiosyncrasies, both good and bad. Their south is not some sort of simplistic alternate universe where everyone is at a lake, sipping Miller Lights, wearing cowboy hats and boots and having a good old time. Their south is dark, twisted and flawed but always beautiful in a way.

“English Oceans,” released on March 3, is the band’s tenth album and their first in three years, an unusually long break for the band. On it, co-singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike Cooley once again becomes equal foil to Patterson Hood, something that has not happened on a Drive-By Truckers album in years.

Their songs are always distinct with Cooley’s songs having more of a sarcastic type of narration, while Hood’s are more refined in a way. On “English Oceans,” most of the lyrical highlights belong to Cooley, while Hood comes up first in the riff department, the musicality of his contributions making up for their occasional lyrical shortcomings. The end result is a typically long album, with a few tracks that aim high and come up short, but just as many tracks that hit the nail brilliantly on the head.

Cooley makes up for the musical simplicity of opener “Sh*t Shots Count” with line after line of lyrical gold. “Put your cigarette out and get your hat back on/don’t mix up which is which. They don’t pay you enough to work/well they don’t pay me enough to bit*h” are sung as the album’s opening lines. It’s a typical, up-tempo bar-band jam, one that would not be special at all if it did not contain other lines like “trophy-tail wives taking boner pill rides for the price of a Happy Meal.” And so it goes for the album’s opening half. Cooley’s lyrics are always sharp, but musically his tracks leave a bit to be desired. Hood on the other hand, is not always at his best lyrically, but the heavy riffing on “When He’s Gone” and the lengthy “Pauline Hawkins” keep things going.

“The Part of Him,” Hood’s biting indictment of a typical Southern politician, is irresistible. Any lyrical faults are more than made up for by the song’s wonderfully catchy and subtle melody. The middle-third of the album is where “English Oceans’” length begins to catch up to it just slightly. “Hearing Jimmy Loud,” “Hanging On,” and “Natural Light” all drag, and go on slightly past their expiration dates.

But the dark, piano-driven “When Walter Went Crazy” picks the album up again. This is the sort of messed-up, trouble-in-paradise tale the band has always done so well. It is mournful, injected with a subtle touch of black humor and musically gorgeous. “First Air of Autumn” is the album’s best acoustic track. Upbeat and evocative, it has a lively quality the album’s other acoustic songs do not share. But, “Grand Canyon,” the eight-minute track that wraps up “English Oceans,” ends up making this album all worthwhile. A loving tribute to the band’s recently departed roadie and close friend; it has a musical scope that befits its title. It is heartfelt, huge and touching; a gorgeous closer.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that this band is 10 albums into their career; they one of rock’s best secret weapons. They combine the hearty southern rock they grew up on with the attitude and disposition of well-weathered punks, forming a musical stew that is entirely their own. They are a band that never disappoints, one from which the listener can always expect a high degree of quality. Singing of their own unique and refreshing vision of the south, Drive-By Truckers have always been a band to rely on for some whimsical but meaningful musical tales. “English Oceans” does nothing to change this.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]