For the length of its first 8 songs, “The Big To-Do” is as good an album as I’ve heard in the past ten years. And even allowing for a finish that doesn’t quite match what came before it, it’s the album to beat in 2010.
It’s fair to say that I own a lot more albums than the average person, but the reason I keep on searching for new stuff is to find a band like the Drive-By Truckers. Somehow, despite positive reviews for over a decade and a pedigree that should have been right up my alley, I managed to miss them completely. Until just a couple of months ago, I’d never heard a single song (at least not knowingly). If it wasn’t for a colleague and friend where I work, I’d still be blissfully unaware of their existence. Thank you, Jean.
For those who haven’t been exposed to the band, they’re from Athens, GA (what is it about that town, anyway?) and the music they play…well, let’s just say that if they’d been around in the 1970s instead of now, they would have given Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers a run for their money in the competition for the title of “best Southern band.” Their musical approach is similar to Skynyrd’s, with a three-pronged guitar attack leading the way, augmented by keyboards and a rhythm section that keeps everything swinging.
On the new album, the band writes the music as a band, but as the lyric credits make clear, one of their strengths is that they’ve got three songwriters: Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Shonna Tucker. Hood gets the majority of the tunes, but the three styles complement each other perfectly. The band obviously takes their work very seriously, as evidenced by something Hood writes in the album’s liner notes:
“I grew up worshipping Rock and Roll like a religion. I know its shortcomings and strengths but have loved it unconditionally all the same since I was eight years old. I ran away and joined the circus and honestly, I’m still as obsessed as I was as a boy. I’m not a kid anymore but I still remember how it felt and it doesn’t really feel all that different to me now. I pay the price, but I get to get up there with my best friends and tell dirty and violent stories about desperate people in troubled circumstances. I get to turn it up loud,” and sometimes I even get to dance.”
You’d be hard-pressed to write a better description of the band’s music than “dirty and violent stories about desperate people in troubled circumstances.” The perfect example of that is the centerpiece of the new album, “The Wig He Made Her Wear.” With an ominous but subtle musical backing that just ratchets up the tension with each successive verse, the song sets its tone right from the beginning:
It was as open and shut as anything I have seen
He was a pillar of town his reputation was clean
It was right before Easter in the first week of spring
He didn’t show up for service that Wednesday night
The congregation knew something weren’t right
Blood on the bed when they opened the door
The preacher was dead on the bedroom floor
As you’ve probably already guessed, nothing is quite as it seems in a song like this:
He’d been shot in the back, a day before he was found
His wife and three kids were nowhere around
An Amber Alert was issued in town
Everyone was shocked at the scene of the crime
She’d taken the kids across two state lines
Found her in Orange Beach with the kids in the car
Sent back to Selmer to await her trial for first-degree murder
But then, in a twist worthy of the best episodes of “Law and Order” or “Perry Mason:”
Said, they were having a fight and the gun was a bluff
She didn’t pull the trigger it just went off
Said that he berated her about everything
Make her do things that made her feel so ashamed
Nobody at church would ever suspect
Made her dress up slutty before they had sex
In the courtroom that day there was an audible gasp
What they put up on display the locals couldn’t quite grasp
There was an audible gasp in the courtroom that day
When the defense pulled out and displayed
Them high-heeled shoes and the wig he made her wear
“Dirty and violent stories,” indeed. The fact that this one is based in fact doesn’t lessen its power.
But Hood is capable of great humor as he explores the darker side of the human psyche, and that’s clearly on display in “Drag The Lake Charlie,” in which a couple of losers actually hope to find their friend Lester drowned at the bottom the lake, because if it turns out that he just went into town for a night of carousing, there will be hell to pay for everyone, at the hands of Lester’s wife Wanda.
Mike Cooley only has three songs on the album, but two of them are absolute winners: “Birthday Boy,” which tells the story of a prostitute who would rather her client just not know her name, and “Get Downtown,” which approaches the same territory as Hood’s “This F*cking Job” but from the other side – a guy who’s out of work, with a wife who’s “too pretty” to do so. Shonna Turner also contributes an outstanding song, the deceptively simple “You Got Another,” which allows the album to showcase something you don’t hear much about anymore – perfect sequencing. Putting “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” “You Got Another,” and “This F*cking Job” in the order that they’re in may seem like a simple thing, but if you think about it, if those three were in any other order, each song would lose a little bit of its power.
Like I said before, the album does end a bit slowly, but I’m still hoping that the final four songs will grow on me as I continue to listen. And I will, I can promise you that.